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Data: A Poor Substitute for Information

The biggest barrier to the improvement of information in enterprises globally is that IT, Data Quality teams, etc. think that digital data equates to information. The fact is that digital data is merely a means of storing elements of data in a manner that enables them to be read and used by computers.

If the digital data is not stored in the correct structure, then it can never be reassembled into useful information, even if all of the data values are correct. Information is more than just data.

Auntie’s Christmas Letter

Whenever I come across this confusion between data and information, the story of Auntie’s Christmas Letter always pops to mind.  A friend of mine had an aunt who, in spite of her very advanced years, was a still a most adventurous spirit and regularly went on exotic adventures and treks to the remotest regions of the world. At Christmas every year, she would send his family a long letter detailing her many exploits over the preceding twelve months.Auntie's typewriter

The family always looked forward to receiving these letters for two reasons. The first was that that they loved hearing about this lovely lady’s adventures, the second was the manner in which they were written. The letters where always produced using an aged and mechanically idiosyncratic typewriter that missed out the letter ‘r’ and, due to bungled repair in Cairo in the 1950’s, substituted ‘:’ for ‘t’. These two faults resulted in lots of entertainment for the family when reading the letters on Christmas day.

The following short extract is an example:

Auntie's Letter Extract

The above extract is a great example of how information can be maintained, even when the quality of data is poor.

The paradox, which so many of those who are obsessed with digital data fail to grasp, is that the data can be 100% correct and the information quite useless.  The following paragraph is exactly the same passage with all of the typewriter typos removed.

it is of the again when i get a adventure chance adventures to you with all my friends months over the past my well i am in that i still trip get always dear the people and to travel to time hilary regale the ago blessed most hello that have exciting really places and the most himalayas meet on the way chance years this was no been family year twelve school exception started and march life off in a special with very feels edmund to the to visit year helped fantastic the that i fifteen found the with great i to this times part of the many world in my but it like new a

Although all of the data in the above passage is 100% correct, the passage itself is quite meaningless. Because we have not maintained the order of the words, all of the information that it contained has been lost.  We have 100% data quality, and 0% information quality.

Enterprises Are Powered by Information

Enterprises require information to operate effectively and information is more than just data. So, merely delivering data quality will not necessarily deliver information quality. Data Quality teams within enterprises need to start having different conversations with the operational business. These conversations need to be based on business centric information as opposed IT centric digital data.

We must all remember that digital data is simply a means of storing elements of information. This digital data has no intrinsic value. It is only of value if it can be recovered from storage and assembled with integrity into useful and useable information.

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