Douglas Spencer (dougs) wrote,
Douglas Spencer

Data, Capta, Information, Knowledge

The recent poll took its rise from a course that Boss B is undertaking which has as one of its set books "Information, Systems and Information Systems: Making Sense of the Field" by Checkland and Holwell, 1998.

The book makes careful distinction between data and information, and introduces the term "capta", unfamiliar to both Boss B and myself. Capta isn't a new concept, but the term was only introduced in a 1992 paper by the same authors, with the same title, presented to a meeting at Warwick University.

Here's an illustration of the distinction the book makes between these four concepts.

I've just been to my Mother's house for the Christmas weekend, and she was in posession of the current issue of the Radio Times, a magazine which lists all the television and radio programmes beiing broadcast over the period.
That's a whole load of data (from the Latin dare, to give).

I picked up the Radio Times and went through it, picking up the fact that Doctor Who was on at 7pm on Christmas Day, and that there didn't seem to be any circus programmes on. Mother hadn't spotted either of these facts.
Mother had been through the Radio Times, learning that Alan Titchmarsh was presenting some programmes about the geology and natural history of the British Isles, something which had escaped me completely.
Capta (from the Latin capere, to take) is that subset of the available data which is of interest. It's not as if I'd seen Mr Titchmarsh's programmes and then discounted them -- they simply hadn't disturbed my consciousness at all. For me, it might as well have been a hole in the page. Similarly, Mother had passed over Doctor Who without a blip.

So we have data, all the available facts -- and capta, the subset of those facts that we actually notice. TV appearances by horticultural botanists aren't part of my capta. I don't notice them. They're invisible to me.

Information arises when we attribute meaning to this capta, perhaps by putting it in context, by relating it to other things and so on. This is the new (tenth) Doctor, it's the Christmas special episode, it's not been broadcast before. And when all this information becomes part of a larger structure of related information, we can refer to that larger structure as knowledge, the sort of knowledge that allows us to recognise (for example) an elaborate homage to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The authors acknowledge in their book that "within the IS field there are no sharp definitions of such words as "data", "information" and "knowledge" which are generally acepted, but there is a clustering of ideas concerning "data" and "information" which is compatible with the analysis developed here".

It seemed to both Boss B and me that the understanding of terms like "data" and "information" were much woolier -- much less distinct -- amongst the general public than this analysis would have implied, and we were keen to confirm that.

Also, we're somewhat reassured that no-one else had heard of "capta" either, although there were some intriguing guesses. We feel a bit less ignorant now.
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