Chapter 2. Data, Information and Knowledge

[Table of Contents] [Previous Chapter] [Next Chapter]

2.1 Introduction

In most industrial countries the traditional society based on agriculture and industry and their resulting products is gradually being replaced by a society which is directed towards service and the production of knowledge. Today an increasing number of people spend their working hours on the production, adaptation, storage, retrieval and distribution of information. A greater need for information is characteristic of the information society, the post-industrial society, the knowledge society, or the electronic era (a number of commonly used descriptions), where it is often said that information is the key resource of the future. Alvin Toffler in his book The Third Wave, published in 1980, describes information technology as providing a number of new techniques for changing the patterns of life and work. 

Knowledge of information handling and concepts is of great importance to research workers and students in engineering, the natural sciences and medicine. The acquisition of information plays a vital role in the innovative process. Firstly, it is important not to repeat things that have already been done and, secondly, information can act as a catalyst or a starting-point for new ideas. Where do ideas for invention and innovation come from? How can you obtain relevant information? There is a vast amount of information available today, and this makes it extremely important to learn how to search for information in an effective and rational way. With this in mind, we will consider the meaning of the terms data, information and knowledge. These are often used as synonyms, even though they represent different things. We will then go on to study the growth of information and how we can use modern technology in the handling of information.

2.2 What are data, information and knowledge?

What do we really mean by the terms data, information and knowledge? The term data is used to represent raw information - various types of basic facts. According to the Commission for Standardisation, data means: the representation of facts, conceptions or instructions in a form suitable for transmission, interpretation or processing conducted by humans or automatic means. Data can be presented and stored in many different ways - digitally as "ones" and "noughts," or in analogue form as digits, graphs or letters. It can be stored on wood, stone, paper, film, micromedia (microfiche and microfilm) and in magnetic and optical memories etc. Data can be seen as "potential information," which the receiver interprets in order to extract the facts or conceptions that the producer intended.

The term information is given different meanings in different contexts. Information can also have a deceptive double meaning, since it represents both something that decreases the receiver's uncertainty and something that increases the receiver's knowledge. In the former case, this is a matter of a relatively simple procedure such as gathering information from a timetable etc., but in the latter, it means the interpretation of data and this is in itself a complex mental process. The data is put into a relevant frame of reference. Analogous to the data definition given above, information can be described as "potential knowledge".

How should one define knowledge? There are different types of knowledge, such as everyday knowledge, professional knowledge, scientific knowledge and aesthetic knowledge. Scientific knowledge has several characteristics: it can be reproduced, it can be formulated in words, formulas or laws, and it can be systematically organised. In the field of technology, scientific and technological knowledge is used to solve problems. One of the characteristic effects of modern society is the greater need for knowledge. Knowledge is just as important as raw materials and energy to the growth of the economy.

2.3 The growth of information

The mass of information within the sciences and technology continues to grow rapidly, which leads to a corresponding increase in the published material. It has been estimated that literature within the fields of natural science and technology is doubled every six to twelve years, depending on the field. This increase is exponential. (See Fig. 2).

In order to be able to make efficient and rational use of the vast amount of scientific and technological information available, it is necessary to understand the pattern and time-scale of scholarly communication.

If you give a man a fish,
He will have a meal.
If you teach him how to fish,
He will be fed for life.
Old Chinese Proverb

Fig. 2. The total number of new scientific journals and abstract journals, seen as a function of time. (Price, D.J. de Solla, Little Science, Big Science, New York, 1963). 

2.4 Information technology and information handling

During the last twenty years, the techniques for information handling - information technology - have developed very considerably. Information Technology (IT) involves a combination of computer techniques, telecommunication techniques and electronics that is used in the production, distribution, storing and retrieval of information. The main features of the developments within the field of information technology are: How do these developments affect the handling of information among researchers, scientists and engineers?

Since the end of the 1960s, computers have been used for the storage of large databases - library catalogues and literature references. The storage of information has now become both simpler and cheaper. Smaller and less expensive computers allow distributed computer power (personal computers and work-stations). This makes it easier for researchers to carry out computer-based information searching themselves. Optical storagemedia facilitate the storage of huge amounts of text, pictures, sound and data at a low cost. The new optical memories - such as digitaloptical discs and CD-ROM - function as distributed memories for databases, encyclopaedias, books etc. This leads to local systems for information handling. The production of documents and publishing are greatly affected by the use of word processors, the transmission of information in a digital form - such as via electronic mail (e-mail) and distribution by means of optical media. Full-text document retrieval - a task that grows more difficult with the continuing growth of published information - is made easier by the use of the academic networks, facsimile equipment and satellite communication.

Information is nowadays available in a number of different forms: on paper, microfiche or microfilm, stored on magnetic media, or as a CD-ROM product or video disc. Other forms of media are the video tape, slides and recordings of music in various forms and multimedia presentations. These developments within the field of information technology have led to a considerable increase in complexity, making it harder to choose suitable strategies for information handling. For that reason, it is very important to learn how to make the right choice among all of the alternatives, thus ensuring maximum efficiency and saving both time and money (Fjällbrant, 1991).