Saturday, April 9, 2011

When Specialists Appropriate Words

When specialists appropriate words, the rest of the world is not obliged to notice.  Consequently, specialists should not forget the “civilian” meaning of their specialized vocabulary. 

For example, software professionals distinguish data from information.  The distinction is both useful and simple; any bloke on the street can get the gist of it after a brief explanation:  Data is raw, piecemeal, free-standing, with little or no context.  Information, by contrast, is data that is enhanced, typically with additional processing (e.g., summarization, statistical analysis) or with supplemental annotation (e.g., addition of narrative text, graphical formatting).


But not everyone makes the distinction.  Here is an excerpt from a description of environmental data on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website:

Environmental data are any measurements or information that describe environmental processes, location, or conditions; ecological or health effects and consequences; or the performance of environmental technology. For EPA, environmental data include both primary data (i.e., information collected directly from measurements) and secondary/existing data (i.e., data that were collected for other purposes or obtained from other sources, including literature, industry surveys, models, data bases, and information systems).

Furthermore, even people who do make the distinction might not use the words data and information to express it.  For example, in the New York Review of Books last month, Freeman Dyson reviewed The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick.  Here is one sentence from that review.

Information, otherwise known as data, pours into memories of that size or larger, in government and business offices and scientific laboratories all over the world.

Let’s not forget, Freeman Dyson is a physicist, a man whose livelihood and professional standing depend on his recognizing the differences between raw data and interpreted data.  But even this man can write “Information, otherwise known as data…”

The lesson for information-management (and data-management) professionals: When discussing strategy with clients, do not assume that those clients will appreciate the subtleties you mean to convey when you say “data” rather than “information” or vice versa.  When your presentations make fine distinctions between, say, information lifecycle management and data lifecycle management, you are almost certain to befuddle your clients/customers.

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