What is “Information”? (Part One)

I’m fascinated by commonplace books as tools for personal information management. But what is it that we’re actually managing?

What is “information”?

I’ve discovered a framework for answering this question. It’s called the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid. This is not an intellectually air-tight concept. Yet it does make distinctions that promote clear communication and crap detection.

Data

The bottom layer of the DIKW Pyramid consists of data. Data includes raw symbols or facts that are presented without context.

Think of the random sequences of 1s and 0s that fill your computer’s hard drive. That is data. It’s meant to be read by a machine—not by you.

We can also understand data in a larger sense. Think about all the factoids thrust at you via the daily news. Much of this is actually data that’s masquerading as information.

For example, many of us feel more afraid of traveling by airplane rather than car. Yet your risk of dying in a car crash is much greater than dying from a plane crash. The sensational coverage of plane crashes—full of isolated facts—makes it easy to forget this. As a result, our cognitive biases kick in and we feel afraid.

It’s no wonder that Richard Saul Wurman—author of Information Anxiety describes the news as “violent wallpaper.” He also cautions us to remember something about isolated facts and figures: “If it does not inform, it can’t be information.”

Information

When we make the leap from data to information, we land on the next layer of the DIKW Pyramid. Data turns into information when you add a missing piece—context.

You know you have context when the data turns into a message. For instance, the following is data:

toftdoug333mainstreetminneapolismn550000012

Let’s organize that data:

Doug Toft, 333 Main Street, Minneapolis, MN 55000-0012

Now we have information. We format that initial string of alphanumeric characters into something that we recognize — a name and address. That’s data + context.

Another example: Look at a spreadsheet filled with raw data about a company’s quarterly revenues. Now put those figures in context: “In the third quarter of this year, sales increased.” That’s information.

Information has been defined as “the difference that makes a difference.” In short, information leads to change. It reduces uncertainty and answers questions. It helps us make decisions. Armed with information, we become different people in a different world.

Also remember that information is a thing. It’s tangible. Information is something that we can store, search, copy, and distribute. It exists in analog form as documents printed on paper. It also exists in digital form as web pages, email messages, images, podcasts, and videos.

Ironically, information also exists as data—text files, MP3 files, audio files, and the like. We turn that data into information by formatting it, organizing it, tagging it, copying it, sending it, and even deleting it. Data that we “touch” becomes information.

We’ve still got two more layers of the DIKW Pyramid to go—knowledge and wisdom. That’s for my next post.