What is Data?

What is Data?

Data. We hear this word at every turn. We hear about how revolutionary it is and how all of the world’s challenges can be overcome with the use of data. But do we really know what data is and why it is such a powerful thing?

In 1639, a young man from Germany named Henry Oldenburg received the fruits of his study in the form of a degree in theological studies. Fifteen years later, he arrived in the bustling city of London as a diplomat and became an early member of the Royal Society, becoming its first secretary. The Royal Society was founded by a group of philosophers, and natural scientists and its core mission were to promote science and education. In 1665, Oldenburg became the founding editor of the world’s first scientific journal named, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In this journal, the practice of sharing observations and experimentation among scientific peers was established. This included documenting measurements and categorization of such measures for the scrutiny and digestion of those who read the journal. It was the birth of data analysis.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines data as “factual information used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation”; However, this definition remains unsatisfactory since the abstract term of “information,” which in itself is comprised of data, presents a circular reference. So, we dig into the Latin origins of the word data to discover that its essence represents a “thing that is given.” The thing given in this regard is a series of numbers, letters, and symbols. It would be remiss of me to ignore the aspect that this thing is something that is provided to us. This thing exists before our acknowledgment. We do not create it, we observe it. In its most essential form, data itself is but the dormant raw material that must be processed and digested to reveal the insight we seek.

Data is only as useful as the observer who documents it and is only as actionable as the analyst who processes it. The appeal of possessing vast volumes of data on a wide array of subjects is very alluring to the ultra-competitive world in which we operate. After all, Francis Bacon proclaimed that “knowledge is power,” and this is undoubtedly true in this information age. However, we cannot process and act upon petabytes of data in a true real-time manner. Information overload is a common affliction found in our organizations which result in paralysis by analysis. 

The real power of data is not found in its plenty, but in its focus. Its power is not found in the technology that surrounds the data initiative. Its strength is found in understanding the most impactful metrics to your business, discovering the sources of the most reliable and consistent data for these metrics, and in the development an efficient (not necessarily automated) process in which the data can be transformed into information that results into decisive action.