Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom?

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom -
Just a think-piece really.

(I was recently visiting the office of the awesome design website Swiss Miss. Over snacks, they asked me to christen their “lunch guest wall” with a scribble. Caught in the headlights and feeling the pressure to be clever and impressive, my mind, of course, went blank. Spotless white. All I had was a noodle in my notepad about the increasing organisational structure of information and how it might relate to visualization. It had been a *long* flight to NY.)

I got kinda stuck with it. So I wanted to open it up and see what you thought.

This is by no means original thought. This structure has been around for a while. (In fact does anyone knows who first came up with it?). The only new thing is relating it to visuals. And giving it a nice font.

One interesting thing. If you visualise information without designing it, you often end up with a mush or a meaningless thicket. So if you can only really ‘design’ information, rather than visualize it, then maybe the term ‘information visualization’ is a bit of a misnomer?

Anyway, how does it look to you? Does it seem logical? Truthful? Do the definitions ring true? What could be the word for the visual depiction of wisdom? Does greater verticality imply greater meaning? Or can errors creep in?

Look forward to your ideas, feedback and corrections!

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Show Comments ( )

  • Chris

    Also, unless I missed it, this hasn’t been mentioned:

  • Kirsten Anker

    Your book sits in our toilet and has been the subject of hours of fascinated contemplation and uch discussion…I hope my comments do not demonstrate a complete ignorance of where you’re going with this diagram.

    A quick internet survey of this structure leads me to conclude that it was developed to inform the development of information within business. If that is so, it is sufficient. But if it is to describe a hierarchy with meaning in the wider world, then I suggest it is insufficient.

    This pyramid seems to relate to Blooms Taxonomy, which lists the increasing sophistication of learning processes thus: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, synthesizing, evaluating. I believe there is some disagreement about whether the 3 higher functions can be distinguished or whether they are all at the same level. In either case, maybe the descriptor “evaluation” on your pyramid belongs with Wisdom rather than with Knowledge. If there is in fact a distinction between analysis, synthesis and evaluation, then there needs to be at least one other step – lets say for argument’s sake, above “Wisdom” there is “Ultimate Wisdom”. Following Bloom, “Ultimate Wisdom” must be more than applied knowledge:perhaps there is an element of creativity: of shaping the information in order to create something new?
    Perhaps I can try to apply this to a problem that perplexes me at the moment: how the Swiss people could have voted recently for an initiative to throw out foreign-born criminals when such a law is impossible to implement under the current legal regime . So, there was IMFORMATION imparted prior to the vote, which was ORGANISED as people decided on their positions and finally they APPLIED that information by voting, but I suggest that without the additional steps of analysis (if we pass this initiative in this form, anyone affected by it can apply to the courts to have the decision reversed and must be successful, so our vote will have been useless), evaluation (it would be better to pass the alternative proposed by the government/the proponents of this initiative must be crazy) and synthesis ( let’s vote for one fo the other options…), then we arrive at an end-point without it necessarily being WISE, (I want to stress that I am focussing on the voting process and not the content of the initiative.)

    Also, for me, the progression “visualisation – design – mapping” does not describe increasing states of organisation – although this may be a question of semantics. Perhaps “observation” is a better first stage? Visualisation implies for me aspects of creativity and control of the mind that I associate with higher intellectual function.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  • David Hoyle

    Hi David

    I think you may find the grounding of your thoughts in Ryssell Ackoff’s work on systems thinking

    Best Wishes


  • Dave

    Hmmm… I’m thinking about traditional, indiginous cultures. They tend to have lots of wisdom, but not much data. Not the traditional kind anyway. How does that fit in to your diagram?

  • Jim De Piante

    Visualized wisdom: Art.

  • Tim Holden

    My first thought was ??? = architecture. Who wouldn’t want to know a wisdom architect? Or aspire to be one, for that matter?

  • Anna

    Just of game of words, maybe, but what about “having a view” as the visual depiction of wisdom?

    • Anna

      sorry, I meant to write “a* game of words” not “of games of words”. Of course.

  • Jack Cuddy

    In your quest to find a descriptive term for the visual depiction of wisdom how about “Sentation” as a liberal conjecture of sentient information? I realize that the implication is not strictly visual, however when the sentient mind compiles information from a variety of senses, including the sense of ourselves. Is that not the quintessential process of wisdom.

    A sentatient presentation is more than the data, colors and lines on a graph. It is customized to match intellect, interests and needs of the intended audience. Remember the communications paradigm of parent-parent, child-child, and parent-child? The US Marines saw the value of this concept in development of comic book style technical manuals that covered very complex equipment maintenance. They also understood the propensity for poor readers to just skip-over words that were unfamiliar to them. Those manuals were written at the third grade level.

    If I were developing a sentatient website of the American Civil War, I would try to make it as realistic as possible. The Southern perspective would include all the sights and sounds of the deep south to make it come alive in harmony with the facts and figures of the time. Scenes of plantation life would come alive with all the beauty and sounds of a home worth fighting for. In the foreground, children softly singing and playing to the melody of ring around the rosy would be shattered by the reverberation from the speakers as the master cracked the whip on a team of mules plowing in the background. These same children would morph into the soldiers crying in agony to the blast of the cannon so loud that the speakers break the starch on your shirt.

  • Greg Comfort

    Hi Dave.

    Just read this and wonder if it provides some insight for this debate?

    Making the complicated simple

    I think what you do through your brilliant illustrations is make the complicated simple.

    Is it possible the triangle above is trying to make the complex simple?


  • tom gu

    Interesting think-piece. I would say the last step (blue box) involves… creativity, parallel thinking, intuition. And I disagree with Andy’s statement that data involves design….that would definitely be info. Ulf’s suggestion of aesthetics seems really interesting. Ever heard of Bradford Keeney’s book, The Aesthetics of Change? Quite nice. Congrats.
    BTW, I consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be obsolete. If it was ever ‘in’. Is ax very criticised theory…. no field work to support it and very arbitrary (actually is impossible to explain certain situations in nowadays work arenas with it). Wouldn’t compare it with your hierarchy of knowledge through data. I WOULD nonetheless consider some critics…. as the model makes wisdom an exclusive possibilities for whom possesses data, info and knowledge…. and I DO think there’s a certain possibility of straightforward enlightenment.
    I insist EXCELLENT think-piece.

  • las vegas bail bonds

    The first thing that strikes me is that it seems to be related to the four worlds of the herbalists! In other words, the idea has been approximately for a long, long time. Maybe not accurately as you put it, be in universal, yes. Nice.

  • Josef B.

    Yes, old idea. Newtonian actually. That bits of things are combined to create more complex things. True in the rough, but “real” world is Quantum or Stringy. Thus, a real diagram would show that it’s not hierarchical but network; wisdom will lead to ways to generate new types of data, knowledge will create new information structures, etc. Enlightenment is when you find where to pull so that the knots are dissolved.

    Josef B.

  • Jeff Goob

    ??? = experiencing

  • Dan Smith

    I’ve just wrote a blog post on this, found it stimulated my brain enough to write one!

  • Eric Rinehart

    Hi David

    Gene Bellinger suggests the modern source as Ackoff (see his web-site ) My thinking follows along that same line, which I believe is the point Kirsten Anker makes.

    I do think it is necessary to extend the framework and so I developed a tentative, but more thorough list, in 2007-2008, consisting of eight gradients of Data, Information, Knowledge, Agency, Reference, Understanding, Insight, and Wisdom.

    In this framework Observation > Data, Organization (of Data) >Information, Accumulation (of Information) >Knowledge, Application (of Knowledge) >Agency, Codification (of Agency)>Reference, Analysis (of References) > Understanding, Synthesis (of Understandings) > Insight, Integration (of Insights) >Wisdom (where ‘>’ means ‘leads to’)

    Interestingly, I started with notations, visualizations and numerics as my first organizing scheme, as I think you have. I did abandon that approach, but only because the sources I located made more logic if structured at three levels –that of Epistomology, Ontology and Pedagogy (list follows).

    Row#1: Source Knowledge, Events Knowledge, Explicit Knowledge, Skills Knowledge, Domain Knowledge, Theoretic Knowledge, Systems Knowledge, Purpose Knowledge.
    Row#2: know (as in sense), know-this/that, know-what, know-how, know what-where-why, know if-then, know-whereas, know (as in belief).
    Row#3: Observation, Organization, Accumulation, Application, Codification, Analysis, Synthesis, Integration.
    Row#4: Data, Information, Knowledge, Agency, Reference, Understanding, Insight, Wisdom.
    Row#5: Locate, Inform, Educate, Demonstrate, Transfer, Research, Model.
    Row #6: Place, Presentation, Preparation, Practice, Praxis, Principles, Paradigms.

    (c) 2008 Eric Rinehart, fair use is encouraged.

    Sources are as follows:
    Bloom, B.(ed.) (1956) “The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain”, Longman, NY; Ackoff, R. L. (1989). “From Data to Wisdom”, Journal of Applied Systems Analysis 16: 3–9; Jaschik, S. (2006) “Teaching, Research, Service & Patents” Inside Higher Ed May 30, 2006; Wallén, G (1993) “Science and Research Methods” (Vetenskapsteori Och Forsknings Metodik). Second Edition, Studentlitteratur, Lund, Sweden; Lundahl, U and Skärvad, P.H. (1999) “Survey Methods for Social Scientists and Economists” (Utredningsmetodik För Samhällsvetare Och Ekonome) Studentlitteratur, Lund, Sweden; Grasha, A. (1996) “Teaching with Style” Alliance Publishers, Pittsburgh, PA.

    I hope to find more time to devote attention to this kind of knowledge managment framework because it does deserve exploration.

    • Meg Porter

      I am very interested in learning more about these information and idea/knowledge structures you shared. Did you write a paper about this? I would love to read it and share some of these thoughts with my colleagues.

  • SpaceTimeContinuum

    Nice thoughts… similar to Nathan Shedroff’s ones… Must be interesting to compare them and see differences/similarities… helping building a merged model…


  • Rob Dyke

    Here is the representation my company uses of the same DIKW model. I’d cite Ryssell Ackoff as our source, as David mentions above.

  • Nick Pal

    In “Knowledge Skill and Artificial Intelligence” Bo Goranzon and Ingela Josefson, chapter 12 is M Cooley’s paper on “Creativity, Skill and Human-Centred Systems”. In there is the following sequence; data, information, knowledge, wisdom, action. I think his argument is based around the idea that judgements are key in being human.

    To make a judgement we have to operate upon a knowledge base and when this happens we call it wisdom.

    The end result of our wisdom is action; we must cause something to occur by our choices.

    It’s a long time ago that I read this book but this idea has stuck with me; I only hope my recollection is sufficiently accurate.

    Best wishes
    Nick Pal

    • Kansas Wiley

      If by “action” you also mean, possibly, “inaction,” I might agree. Sometimes the wise course is *not* to intervene, change, shape, push. This is one of the lessons I have learned from parenting.

      Buena suerte,
      Kansas Wiley

  • Shannon Lee

    Visual understanding is not hierarchical for the viewer, but for the creator, perhaps. This diagram is mostly your process of organizing information with your unique filters, culling what you deem important. In my dream, I see visual understanding as a potter slamming clay to align the molecules, then pulling the clay into a pot that can hold water.

  • Ryan

    T.S. Eliot posed the question: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

    But the best explanation I’ve come across to date is as follows: “Noise becomes data when it has a cognitive pattern. Data becomes information when assembled into a coherent whole, which can be related to other information. Information becomes knowledge when integrated with other information in a form useful for making decisions and determining actions. Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in anticipating, judging and acting. Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory and projection.” – George Santayana

  • Jaak Aulik

    At a New Year’s eve party with a U.K. visitor, Benet Brandreth, I was waxing eloquent about
    “The Information Hierarchy.” He later Googled the term, to find your Pyramid, showing four
    levels, and requesting any information on its origins. In 95, I first presented the subject at a Management Seminar for Lucent Technologies while working for Global Resources, a California consulting company. My hierarchy displays FIVE LEVELS, beginning with DATA (defined as any difference making a difference.. see also, Gregory Bateson in “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.) It progresses through INFORMATION, KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM and finally, GRACE, completing the link where MEANING has much more relevance. They key to visualization is to present data as Two nested Bits forming a Byte. Take Two right triangles and join them at the hypotenuse: they form a Square. You can also join them at the longer arms of the right triangles, and they form a Parallelogram. Two Bits form a Byte, a shape that is either a Square or a Parallelogram.. “a difference that makes a difference.” Now consider a culture, each defending its mental point of view: the Squares form a virtuous, RIGHTeous, stable, and traditional society (they are RIGHT after all, with FOUR right angles, made from only TWO right triangles.) The Parallelograms are biased on subjects and are liberal and forward leaning in their interpretation of facts. They MAKE decisions. The Squares TAKE decisions. Squares STAND for political office; Parallelograms RUN for office. Now try to ADD a Square to each cultural shape: the Square is easy, it remains a Square; but the only way to add a square to a parallelogram is to again DIVIDE it in two, break it in the middle, let it be BORN AGAIN with another Square in the middle. Each higher level of the hierarchy does indeed have greater MEANING. The human mind perceives this breaking up as DEATH, and resists it. Only forgiveness allows it to become a new shape. (So Much More to be said.. about increasing MEANING, POWER, TIMING and FORGIVENESS.)

  • Jaak Aulik

    Data only becomes relevant when it is organized into Information. Information only becomes relevant when its relationships to other information become understood. THAT IS, that we STAND UNDER the larger concept, to see the CONTEXT of KNOWLEDGE. Volts equal Amps times Resistance, for example. Knowledge presents a larger, but related context, for smaller pieces of linked or nested information. Wisdom has to do with TIMING: e.g. single specks of concrete dust dropped from the Empire State building have no meaning to the pedestrians below; but a BAG of CONCRETE dropped from that height, the particles nested only in a larger, very thin boundary, has dramatic consequence and MEANING below.

  • Brad

    I teach high school science and came across your visual. I’d LOVE to blow this or something similar to poster size and have it in my classroom.

    If you make a newer version, please post it

  • Ugo

    If by “just playing”, you mean you’re stuck on the information level information, don’t worry, I understand you. I’m also really good at this 2nd floor, really I’m amazing at making connections and linking elements to make short sentences. But it’s still a lot to do on all of the other levels (which in I just suck).
    Thank you!

  • Angela

    I’ve enjoyed reading through the comments, as well as, the blog. The graphic immediately brought to mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. I believe it was published in the 1940′s

  • craig d crook
  • Hu Fili

    To echo Jaak Aulik’s point (, the description of data, information, knowledge and wisdom might need to depict the relationship model, where knowledge (and evidence, which is essentially applied knowledge) is really a relationship between two pieces of information, which in turn could be considered to be atomic in comparison. In this sense, information is the precursor to knowledge and evidence, which cannot exist without at least two distinct pieces of information to form the relationship – wisdom by comparison might be a natural extension to refer to the act of completing (or understanding) a set of relationships around a single information node.

    Interestingly, the hierarchy pre-dates the ubiquity of electronic information and data and the blurring of ‘structured’ and ‘unstructured’ data through the advent of data mining, text analysis, xml-based document formats etc – in this sense, perhaps data and information in the web age could be considered essentially synonymous?

    • ghazall

      please send for me an article

      • Hu Fili

        I wish I could – not much in the literature. I guess upper ontologies like yago or sumo give some representation, but I’d be interested in any papers too.

  • Kansas Wiley

    This is a beautiful diagram. I would only suggest a level between “knowledge” and “wisdom.” For example, “applied knowledge” can come in the form of technology or a successful business. These applications may be effective or even efficient in the short term. They may also, however, lack any moral dimension, any sense of the larger effects of the applications. It is this larger sense, this longer view, that I think of when I see the word “wisdom.” Wisdom certainly involves successful application of knowledge, but it carries me morally/aesthetically/spiritually beyond success. It has more dimension and depth that simple application. Just my two cents. Thanks.

  • andrés

    I would rather think about it as a closed loop cycle.. wisdom may come back and generate data.. in a circular visualization.

    • Elissa S

      I would love to see that visualization andres!

  • Erik J. Heels

    The data -> information -> knowledge -> wisdom hierarchy comes from, I believe, the late great Mortimer J. Adler and his epic book “A Guidebook To Learning: For The Lifelong Pursuit Of Wisdom.” Brief review here: Awesome book.

  • Grace Baggot

    Thank you from a visually oriented person with an analytical mind. Naming elements is very helpful in a ready made world. Knowing the elements of a situation, thought, stimulates reflection, questioning rather than acceptance of a complete thought, a ready made situation. It also helps identify wisdom in this particular case because one can now name and site the elements. The proportions are as realistic as life. Existence is chaos precisely because of the quantity of elements. Hope this adds a little something even if it is just encouragement.

    Sincerely, Grace Baggot

  • Dr Susan Myburgh

    I have done a PhD on this very topic. You may be interested, in brief, in the following:

    The DIK hierarchy has interesting origins, according to Shara (2005) who undertook a study to discover when this metaphor was first used. He discovered it in Harlan Cleveland in 1982, and then in Milan Zeleny in 1987. But the hierarchy is first suggested in a poem by T. S. Eliot, published in 1934, called The chorus of the rock:

    Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

    So we have built a discipline or two, or even a culture, on a false set of correlations. Data cannot be the ‘building blocks’ of knowledge because they are the product of a knowledge system (as either ‘facts’ or ‘numbers’). In my opinion, it all starts with knowledge, and the creation thereof, part of which (only) can be shared (‘communicated’) through being represented in language of some sort -including art and mathematics. And the listener needs to be able to understand the meaning given to these sounds (shapes, scribbles) according to cultural context. That part of knowledge which can be shared – and which people wish to share with certain other people – can be called information. Data are a kind of information. Wisdom is an attribute totally unrelated to knowledge (and information and data), but is a philosophical concept based on actions that cause no home and that reveal understanding.

  • Kalkiran

    As far as im aware noone has mentioned this, so I hope this helps. The consorts of Ganesha Siddhi and Buddhi in the Hindu pantheon can be seen as representing a distinction between just raw data and facts (Buddhi) and actual understanding (Siddhi). It was often used to teach me that just knowing and memorising wasnt enough and that understanding was important. Of course with any deity role is open to interpretation and often as (wikipedia mentions) Siddhi is associated with spiritual understanding.