Friday, May 30, 2014

Data versus Information - What's the Difference?

According to Merriam-WebsterData can be defined as follows:
  1. factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation 
  2. information output by a sensing device or organ that includes both useful and irrelevant or redundant information and must be processed to be meaningful
  3. information in numerical form that can be digitally transmitted or processed
Also according to Merriam-WebsterInformation can be defined as follows:
  1. knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction
  2. the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects
  3. a signal or character (as in a communication system or computer) representing data (2) :  something (as a message, experimental data, or a picture) which justifies change in a construct (as a plan or theory) that represents physical or mental experience or another construct
  4. a quantitative measure of the content of information; specifically :  a numerical quantity that measures the uncertainty in the outcome of an experiment to be performed
According to the definition of "Data" above, it would seem that "Data" is made up of "Information" of a particular form; factual information (as measurements or statistics),  information output (both useful and irrelevant) that must be processed to be meaningful, and/or numerical information.  

The key distinction here would seem to be in that second definition - data is information that must be processed to be meaningful.  

When we look at the definition of "Information," we see words like "knowledge," "attribute... communicated by," "something... which justifies change," "quantity that measures uncertainty."  

Because language is fluid, in research it is important to operationally define our terms.  In other words, you have to start a research endeavor by saying, "for the purposes of this study/report/project, when I say ____, I mean ______." 

So, based on the definitions above, I will operationally define "Data" to mean "input without meaning."  

I did not say "information without meaning," because when you look at the definition for "Information," it would seem that information includes meaning; despite the fact that the definition of data indicates data is a particular kind of information.  As I said, language is fluid, and it is not always as precise as we'd like it to be. 

The operational definition I will use for "Information" would be "data plus meaning."  

At this point the reader is likely asking, "What's your point?"  

The point is simply this:  There is a great deal of data in the world, and there is a great deal of effort made to collect, record, and report this data.  The problem is that often data is produced and presented without meaning attached to it.  And without meaning, data has no utility.  

I had a professor in college who talked about "gee whiz" research - studies that were big, fancy, and flashy; but in the end all you could do with them was say, "gee whiz, isn't that interesting?"  They provided no real information with meaning and utility.  

The goal of research should be to produce information; not just data.  To produce something that can inform actions, guide decisions, and impact positive change.

Otherwise, all we have are some pretty graphs and tables that make people say, "gee whiz."  

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