If we are to look at the definition of the terms as found in the English Language Dictionary we can see that the terms are not clear cut and depend heavily on each other:
Data, “is factual information organized for analysis and processing”, Information, “is knowledge derived from study, observation and experience” and Knowledge, is defined as “the state of knowing, or possession of specific information about a certain subject”.
The definitions go full circle and they are all centered around our capability to observe, remember and adjust our future actions according to the things that we observe and remember. This is what most consider Knowledge to be, more informally speaking: the totality of facts that we can observe and remember coupled with our ability to manipulate consciously the course of our actions based on them. The facts that generate the decisions associated with knowledge, are chunks of information: conglomerates of facts that make sense together in a given situation enough so they can trigger that change in behavior. This aspect of making sense is essential to Information, without it there is no reaction, there is no knowledge, it’s only Data: random facts, observations devoid of context that do not make sense on their own, but which can nevertheless be recorded, replayed and otherwise manipulated.
Information is always semantic, it has meaning, whereas data is not. So if we are to create a hierarchy between the terms, Data, would sit at the bottom and represent the blind facts drawn from the environment. When processed and put into context so that it makes sense it becomes Information, and when the totality of the information is put together so that decisions can be made Knowledge arises.
In the day to day human life we don’t really operate with data, as it is a form of storing facts which is useless in most cases, not being readily accessible. In our heads, we don’t store data, we store information, facts that are relevant to our own, personal existence, facts that are highly connected and very readily available making them highly valuable in the day to day decision making process. When we read a book, the letters of the book are data, but we are not concerned with those, not consciously anyways, we are driven inexorably towards extracting the information from the book, we read until it makes sense. The human mind, is not designed to work with data but the concept was born anyway (even if it was not consciously termed at that point) from necessity when some people needed to work with other people’s information.
Evidently when one operates on other people’s information, this (the information) will loose some or all of its meaning, so other forms of mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure the information survives a transitory meaninglessness. For example, one can copy an entire book and not understand its content, nevertheless, the information in the book is preserved, even transferred into the new book thus being multiplied. Information can survive meaninglessness, and can even be manipulated in this meaningless state, but it is essential that an individual who does understand the information encodes (It) into this transient form, and makes it available to the data processor which does its job. Later another individual with capability to understand the information has to decode the data and make sense of it.
In today’s world it is the IT professional’s duty to put the information through the semantic grinder and transform it into this meaningless state in which it can be manipulated by the computer, but in a world where we are trying more and more to make sense of the vast amount of Data that we have come to collect, this skill that we readily learn as soon as we step into the school is becoming more of an impediment rather than an asset. It is more and more difficult to discern where information ends and data begins, and all too often the very code that is destined to hide the meaning is confused with the meaning itself.
While the field of Information Technology contains the word “information” in its name, perhaps because it is meant to bring information to people, to create information and better the decision making process its object of work is in fact data, not information. Information is very difficult to work with because it does not have clear boundaries. Data is stable, stand alone and context independent; one can always count on data to be data, but information depends on the subtlety of meaning which varies enormously from situation to situation, from interpreter to interpreter. What may represent information in a certain context it may be meaningless raw data within a different context or something in between. While data can be quantified, stored and framed between certain limits, information will always be a gradient of values that depends heavily on who observes it and how it is observed.
It is not difficult to understand that due to this intimate nature of information, people who work with it, find it difficult to draw the line between data and information. We are intelligent creatures, we possess knowledge and we operate with information on a constant basis. Whenever we look at data we will strive to make sense of it and we will always find some information that hides in there. Yet more often than not, the information that we see is just an illusion, a residual flicker of our thinking process interacting with the data that we operate with. But once that data is disconnected from us and becomes exclusively part of the cybernetic environment that entire meaning is lost. It can exist no more. Unlike us, the cybernetic system lacks the spark that is needed to transform data into information and our programming techniques are not doing a great job in improving this handicap. If we are to step into a new, semantic era, where information is stored in meaningful state outside the brains of individuals, we need to reanalyze what information is and what it represents and we need to understand its limitations and particularities. We need to especially understand how meaning (semantics) connects to data and the way they, together, create Information.