Nov. 16 2021 08:15 AM

Otherwise, data without context is useless


Through the decades, I have been asked many times to explain the difference between data and information — in lay terms. The reason is that today, data is the reference for everything.

Let’s begin by looking at the definition of data. According to Merriam-Webster, data is “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion or calculation.” Note here the reference to “information” and the assumption that we know the context in which this information, or data, is collected and presented.

Let’s take it a step further and look at raw data — without context. For example: 42. If I were to provide you with this number — 42 — you have no sense of its meaning or purpose. When left for you to determine, and dependent upon your point of reference, you may think 42 is the number baseball player Jackie Robinson wore, or the answer to life, the Universe and everything as presented in Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Which Is Right?
In each case you would be correct because I provided no context to the number 42 for you to reference, and therefore, you are not able to correctly understand its purpose. As a data point, this would be near impossible to use since we don’t have the context. Now, if I tell you that 42 represents a monetary value, as in 42 dollars, you now have a better understanding that it is currency. If I expand this to represent the price I paid for a shirt, you now have information, not raw data, to use in analysis and other actions that will provide value.

Simplifying this more, data without context has no meaning or purpose. Data with context becomes information that we can understand. Information pulled together for a purpose, now transforms into content. So, data with context is information and the way we provide context is through the use of metadata that describes what the raw data represents.

In My View
This is where I may have a few folks throw rocks, but data without context is useless. 42, 53, car, elevator and any other number or word by itself, other than representing what it is, has no purpose or value. To know something is an elevator is good as a point of reference as to the item but serves no analytical value on its own.

Metadata provides the context by which elevator becomes useable information that can be analyzed, provided results and enable decision making. The better the metadata, the clearer the context and as such, the stronger our analytical capabilities in leveraging data to enhance our Business Intelligence initiatives.

When you strategize about how information will be captured and managed, look at the whole organization and develop a metadata strategy that will bring benefit not only for findability, but useability. 42. I leave it up to you to decide.

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