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What is the difference between data and information?

Data and information are not the same thing. Here, we take a look at the differences between the two, with the help of a real-world example.

Data and information are all around us. Many of our daily activities are influenced by data and information: from looking up a weather forecast so you can decide what to wear, to making important financial decisions. However, many people do not understand what ‘data’ and ‘information’ actually mean. You may have heard these terms used interchangeably, but, in fact, they are different to each other.

Understanding data is a very important skill, as we use it to solve real-world problems, such as modelling the spread of a virus or predicting injuries in professional sportspeople.

What is data?

Look at the table below. This is an example of data, which is extracted from a larger set of data:

Link to PDF version of the table

It is impossible to know what these numbers mean without additional context; therefore, we cannot find out any information by looking at them. Viewed on its own, this table does not tell you anything.

Consider the table now:

Link to PDF version of the table

This is now an example of information. You may recognise that this is a medal table, inferring the meaning of the three circles as the gold, silver, and bronze medals, and understanding that the numbers are the amounts of medals won by the countries now included in the table. The medal symbols and country names provide you with context.

Introducing data to your learners

You can define data as letters, words, numbers etc. that have been collected for a purpose, but are stored without context.

For example, if you ask children to create a tally chart of how they get to school by drawing a line for each response to a question, the marks recorded on the paper are data. A sensor on a weather station collects data about temperature or rainfall, which will typically be stored as numbers in a spreadsheet.

Data is not only numbers, it can also be in other formats. These could be words, or a value, such as whether something is true or false. For example, researchers might note down the characteristics of insects, such as whether they have a shell, where they are found, and number of legs. The data collected in these examples is useful, but not properly meaningful until you have organised it and contextualised it as information.

What is information?

Information is data put into context, which provides meaning. Look at this table again:

Link to PDF version of the table

The column and row headings provide context, but there is still some context missing. It is a medal table, but you don’t know which competition it is from.

A title offers more context and therefore provides you with more information. One further bit of context in this example is that the data in the table shows only the top three countries from the 2021 Olympics when they are ranked by number of gold medals.

Link to PDF version of the table

Data handling activities

Working with data and information, especially on a computer, is known as data handling. Good data handling and information activities involve learners asking questions, collecting useful data, and presenting it in a way that turns it into information by giving it context.

Task

Think about the data you come across and use in your day-to-day life. What data do you collect in the classroom or at home? What are the steps you follow to turn this into information?

This article is from the free online

Teaching Data and Information to 5- to 11-year-olds

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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