Research, evaluation, analysis

Information from Scratch

I was out of town last week on business. I had never been to the town I was visiting before, so I bought a map of it. The map was published in 1998, but failed to show a major street which, I was informed, had been opened five years or so before that. The street was the street on which my clients had their office.

I found my way there on time anyway, but the example does illustrate a point which has been made before on this site. We are continually told that this is an Age of Information, but in fact it is only an Age of Data. To become information, data must be accurate and relevant. My map failed on both counts.

If information is not accurate, it cannot be relevant. Obviously, if a city map does not contain a major street it cannot be valid. A map of London which omitted Trafalgar Square would simply not be a map of London.

Even if information is accurate, though, it need not be valid. An accurate map of Detroit is not relevant to you if you are trying to find your way around Minneapolis. That point may seem irrelevant itself, but too often people trying to interpret data are performing the equivalent of trying to find their way around Minneapolis with a map of Detroit. For example, people often assume that opinions and other ideas predict behaviour, so that instead of observing the behaviour of the people they are interested in understanding, they need only collect their ideas. This assumption is often wrong. For example, students' educational aspirations often are unrelated to how far they go in school.

Information is a tool. It must be appropriate to the task at hand. You wouldn't use a hammer to fix a watch, and there is no reason you should just assume that any particular piece of data will be useful to you. If data are not useful to you, they are not information, even though they may be informative to someone else. Turkish newspapers are informative to millions of people, but I don't speak Turkish, so they cannot possibly be informative to me.

Information is a functional concept. It is not something which comes in handy packages and with guaranteed quality. Information is something you must make from scratch. You make it by evaluating the accuracy and relevance of data.

Information from Scratch © 2001, John FitzGerald
Home page | Decisionmakers' index | E-mail