At first glance, the concepts referred to as data, information, and knowledge appear very similar. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that, although they may be related, data, information, and knowledge are distinct from one another. In fact, these three things can be thought of as a progression. Data can become information. Information can become knowledge. One can even assert that, given the right set of circumstances, knowledge can become wisdom.
So what are they? What are data, information, and knowledge?
Data are a set of raw facts. These facts can be represented by many different things such as numbers, words, or symbols. These facts are devoid of meaning on their own. Only when they are given context, can they be used. If I say “12, 14, 16,” this data set contains facts with no meaning. When I say, “These are the ages of my children,” the data set now has context and can be used.
When data are given context, they become information. Interestingly, information can also be viewed as a data set in some situations. It’s important to note that although information contains meaning, it is not knowledge. Information can be considered separate from the individual. Even when data are given meaning by an individual, becoming information, that newly formed information is not a part of the individual. One way to think of data and information may be to think of matter. Particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons might be considered as data. These particles joined together to form elemental atoms may be considered information as might be the elements joined together to form molecules.
When information is transferred to someone via any number of processes and internalized, that information becomes knowledge. Knowledge is the personalized construction of information into a relevant concept. Once knowledge has been constructed by an individual, it can be transferred as information or data to more individuals, joined with information transferred by other individuals to form a collective knowledge, or applied in a practical way to one’s life to form a type of wisdom.
As I’ve been thinking about the nature of data, information, and knowledge, I recognize that there are holes in my structure. Honestly, I’m positive that I’m only seeing a portion of the true nature of each thing, and only understanding a small part of their relationship with one another. In my head, I keep coming back to the question “if a tree falls in the wood with no one around, does it make a sound?” In my mind, we need the concepts of data, information, and knowledge to answer this question. We have the data set: tree, falls, wood. We have the information: a tree falls in the wood. Until we experience the tree falling in the wood, however, we can’t answer if it makes a sound. We don’t know. We don’t have the knowledge because we haven’t been able to experience the information…we haven’t been able to internalize the contextual data and make some sense of it. I might think that it makes a sound, but then again I might not. I can’t know until I do.
It seems to me that knowledge is the thing that we really need so that we can communicate with one another. The trick is, however, that we need to have a type of knowledge both to transmit and to receive. I can’t even receive knowledge if I don’t already have some type of knowledge so that I can have some idea (know) what I’m receiving.