Useful illustration of the difference between data and information (and knowledge)

Data and Information. These terms are often used interchangeably, though they actually mean very different things. I recently came across this example*, provided by Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Southampton University. He says:

When I give you a number, like 37, you don’t know whether that is somebody’s age or a particular kind of temperature or some kind of stock price.

Until I put it in context.

Then, that data becomes information.

And, if I can do something with that information (I can use it to give you some kind of antibiotic because you got a fever, or sell a share because it is worth selling), that’s knowledge.


So, what we usually refer to as open data, actually is information because it exists in a context. For instance, we don’t just get a database with timings or percentage numbers. We also know that those numbers refer to train timetables or infection rates in hospital. And it is that contextual element which turns data into information and that, in turn, also gives (open) data its value.

* This example emerged during an episode of the BBC radio 4 programme Life Scientific, which, at the time of publishing this post, is available here.

5 thoughts on “Useful illustration of the difference between data and information (and knowledge)

  1. I agree that context turns data into information. However, the quality of the context, determines the quality of the information and therefore the value a person attaches to that information. Eg taking your example, if I said 37 people who applied for a job were immigrants, then depending upon your views on immigration you can take this as good or bad. If I said 37 out of 1000 applicants were from immigrants then you can evaluate this information from the appropriate viewpoint, business, recruitment, etc, and can attach an appropriate value to this information. This means that data is true, information is useful but context decides its value.


    1. So, data in itself is not valuable. Only when it is put into context and, thus, turned into information. And what you are saying (if I get it right) is that the exact value of data depends on the specific context. So, knowing that 37 refers to the price of a share could be of no value to me but very valuable to you. Right?!

      This means that when we talk about context we need to distinguish between the context in which the data was generated (and which turns it into information) on the one hand; and the context in which the data is used (which gives information its value).

      Well, well, well… Thank you, Tim!!! I have been writing an article about the value of social media data… and your comment just helped me crack a key part of the argument 🙂


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