The two terms “data” and “information” quite often get used interchangeably and while that in itself is not a problem, there are two distinct concepts here that I believe need to be highlighted that makes it important to not use these words interchangeably. Bear with me and hopefully you’ll see why I think being precise on the definitions of data and information is important.

If I give you a number, “13155331”, that’s data. You have no idea what that number represents, no context to help you determine what this number represents. If I instead tell you “13155331 is next week’s winning lottery ticket number”, that’s information (You’re very welcome and let me know when you’ve settled in the Bahamas).

Notice that if I didn’t give you this context, you certainly can make some assumptions, but that is dangerous as witnessed by NASA with their ill-fated Mars probe – two different groups were referencing the same number but each had completely different assumptions as to the unit of measure for that number. For lack of a unit of measure a Mars probe was lost!

So I’ve given you some context that may improve your ability to make better decisions with that number. But is it enough to help you make the best decision? Perhaps it would also help to understand how I learned that this is the winning number so you know you can trust it really is a winner? Or perhaps you need to know my confidence level that this is the winning number? (Since you ask, my confidence level is zero as I have absolutely no idea that this number is a winner. Still, feel free to use this number for your next lottery ticket purchase.)

You may notice that what gives this number context is also data. In fact this “contextual” data is likely much more complex than the data it describes. In IT speak we give this type of data the term “metadata”, a very broad term that in itself is the source of much confusion and debate so we’ll leave it at that for now.

So the next time someone gives you some data you need, be sure to stop and ask yourself “Do I have the context I need to use this data correctly and effectively?”