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 ( )

  • Phil Knight

    I strikes me that higher up the pyramid seems to resemble the information processed by the left hand side of the brain as described by Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary. The bottom is more the right hand side of the brain. Whether or not greater processing of information creates wisdom depends on the process by which it is organised. Often this process is flawed and people can think themselves down a rabbit hole. Once in they are often reluctant to leave. You could solve the problem in your visualisation by simply changing the title of the top of the pyramid to perceived wisdom.

  • Andy Cotgreave

    This is a nice start. I don’t think your red and blue boxes are necessarily related. For example, Data needs some Design. Even at the Knowledge level, there may be subsequent Visualisation required. And finally Mapping is ambiguous. Do you mean mapping as in Atlases, GIS, etc, or mapping one piece of information to another (ie linking?). Either way, the ambiguity means the word should probably be replaced.

    Having written the above paragraph I am now more convinced that that is the problem: the two sets of boxes are not related in a one-to-one manner that your diagram implies.

  • Andy Cotgreave

    Is “Information Visualisation” a misnomer? Of course it is, just as much as “Business Intelligence” or “pivot table” or “information graphic” or “graphic design” are.

    No professional activity is black or white enough to be accurately descirbed in two words.

  • What4

    Google “data information knowledge” and look at the images. Lots of versions of this interesting idea.

    Let’s hope it doesn’t become reified, however, like Dale’s Cone — a similar intuitive concept that got mistaken for a truth.

  • Red Abbott


    I think that the “increasing Organisation/meaning?” arrow can also be tagged “increasing value,” and the highest level of the pyramid should include some descriptors of how this stuff, well done, leads the origin of things like books, etc. but also to *change* in how people think, do, behave, etc.

    Maybe at the pinnacle there can be another level (next* to WISDOM? Above it?):
    GRAY TEXT: “Refinements, modifications, improvements, optimizations, efficiencies”
    WHITE TEXT: Maybe the verb forms of the gray text above are better here.

    * Also notice that the higher you go, the more text/info you have but the less space you have b/c of the pyramid form. Flip it? In one sense, _A_ large quantity of info. is boiled down to one or a few sophisticated tools/interpretations, but in general terms, a few kinds of elemental imfo bits (words, numbers) have the potential to explode into a large # of uses (your books, paradigms, systems, etc.).

  • sirherald

    Hi there,

    The first thing that strikes me, is that it seems to be related to the four worlds of the qabbalists! In other words, the idea has been around for a long, long time. Maybe not exactly as you put it, be in general, yes. Nice.
    (btw. You have to skip some dogma but as a sytem it seems to be related, see here:

  • Tim Johnson

    The idea comes from a T. S. Elliott quote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

    Data and information are the same. Knowledge is when information becomes part of the content of someone’s brain, and wisdom is the ability to act on knowledge appropriately or effectively.

    Those are the only levels your pyramid needs. There is another pyramid representing an effective business model which illustrates the roles in an organization as “Finder, Minder and Grinder.” The CEO is the finder, the managers and administrators are the minders and the producers are the grinders. These correspond with your three levels. Grinders need data, minders need knowledge and leaders need wisdom.

    As for information “design,” think of design as the job of making the data as usable and valuable as possible, effectively sending it up the pyramid. Design it to be easy to know and easy to act upon.

    Good chart. Good question.

  • Ivo Janecka

    see Abraham Maslow for his Pyramid of Needs (1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation)'s_hierarchy_of_needs

  • Lexie

    You are missing a section between knowledge and wisdom, and it’s called “totally screwing up”. You won’t reach any level of wisdom without it.

  • Claus

    what about a word for visualization of wisdom like SHAPING

  • Jim Davies

    I think the way I’d categorize this stuff is in terms of perception and inference.

    Sensations are low-level perceptual identifications.
    Perceptions involve some interpretation of what you’re seeing.
    Episodes form examples of individual events of stimulation experiences.
    Inferences are things like generalizations over the episodes. They can incorrect.
    Frameworks are harder to falsify; they describe a whole approach to looking at phenomena.

    Jim Davies
    Institute of Cognitive Science
    Carleton University

  • Cindy Maxey

    I visualize this in the other direction. Wisdom is deeper than knowledge which is deeper than information and data is the surface layer.

  • Benedict Cohen

    Here’s a Frank Zappa ‘lyric’:

    Information is not knowledge.
    Knowledge is not wisdom.
    Wisdom is not truth.
    Truth is not beauty.
    Beauty is not love.
    Love is not music.
    Music is the best…

  • Robert Singers

    I think that increasing organisation arrow might be a mistake. Certainly there are an increasing number of linkages between individual data elements, but at a data level the structures may actually display the highest level of organisation in the continium.

    • david

      good point – increasing connectivity? density? complexity?

      • GinaFred

        Like others, I am reminded of Bloom’s taxonomy, but overlaid with right-brain/left-brain functions. It seems to me that the higher we go on the pyramid, the more we are using right-brain conceptual functions, while the bottom layers often are more linear and structured. I find myself wondering if perhaps the pyramid may not be best or only way of looking at this. I visualize more of a circular construct with the “highest” levels being at the center of a sphere. Thank you for sharing this – I am going to be ruminating about this for awhile, I guess.

  • Bill Hoggarth

    Hi David, I doubt many can fault the logic of data-information-knowledge-wisdom, but does the linkage work as well the other way round? We in the “meaning from data” industry tend to promote the direct causality chain between data and wisdom, but sometimes lose sight of the fact that there’s a lot more to wisdom than just knowledge, and that there’s a lot more to knowledge than only information. The same is true of the link between better data/info and better decisions. There’s a lot more to better decisions than just better information, and a lot more to better information than just better decisions.

  • Ulf Barkan

    Maybe the top blue box “???” should read “aesthetics”?

  • Hans-Joerg Schulz

    I have first seen a hierarchical notion that arranges data, information, and knowledge into different but interrelated levels in

    Agnar Aamodt and Mads Nygård: Different roles and mutual dependencies of data, information, and knowledge – An AI perspective on their integration, in “Data and Knowledge Engineering”, Vol.16, No.3, pp.191-222, 1995

    I hope that helps the discussion!

  • David

    ? = may be “Enlightenment” or “Truth”

    I think we are at the beginning of Knowledge.

    Congratulations for your amazing work!

  • David Sanchez

    Hello David, thanks for the beautiful flow.

    ??? = Understanding
    As a cognitive process.

    You are dealing with many levels of abstraction that take you through atomization and the whole as the sum.

    The pyramid for me represents the cognitive process to reach understanding or the process in which concepts become memes or cultural units.

    The blue labels feel somewhat dissonant or is it your questioning?

    Anyway interesting piece, looking forward to the next iteration.


  • Liz

    Ever heard of the pyramid of Maslow? Check it out

  • oddbjorn

    Nikil Sharma: The Origin of the Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy:

    may perhaps provide some clue as to the origin of the concept?

  • Nelie

    This resembles some developmental models of critical thinking in cognitive psychology, except that the focus is on visual analysis. Interesting!

  • Sarah Kathleen

    Perhaps the best (and highest?) form of visual mapping and visual information design is through teaching – the function of the form is to convey meaning to others; if we can map how the graph/chart/picture/image/illustration impacts someone else and sets off their respective hierarchical learning, then that might capture your intent. If someone else acquires knowledge through your efforts, and changes their behavior, you have succeeded.

    The triangle seems limited. Perhaps it’s a spiral? The idea that we get increasingly smaller and simpler may be incorrect. Perhaps we oscillate between increasingly synergistic ideas and then rapidly diverging / fractal ideas.


    • Omar Ali

      I love the graphic, but I second this and don’t think that the pyramid is the correct shape.

      Think of how many words we can make from a small set of letters, and how many sentences we can make from these words, and so on.

      I’m not sure of the correct shape, but perhaps the pyramid could even be inverted?

  • Jill

    As a neuropsychologist specializing in dementias, I was looking at the pyramid and it’s inverse relation to progressive decline in functional cognition in these patients. Interestingly, while the model generally holds true (higher, more complex thinking is affected early, basic units of information are retained) some of the “highest” level constructs like tradition and values are retained until late in the disease. – just got me thinking…. I really enjoy your stuff.

  • Paolo Ciuccarelli

    Hi all, it’s a very interesting (and challenging) issue! We (DensityDesign) presented a paper about that at the IV10 conference (July 2010), discussing a possible model to create to link the data-information-knowledge continuum and the visualization domain.
    The title of the paper is “From Data to Knowledge – Visualizations as Transformation Processes within the Data-Information-Knowledge Continuum”.

  • Sue

    Wisdom cannot equate to ‘truth’, only versions of the truth – maybe the signifying word could be ‘epistemologies’.

  • Phil H

    I would say that the value visualization brings is not only design but also analysis. First, you must analyse the information, and then you have to communicate that analysis to others. You can generate a very well designed pie chart, but if the useful analysis is better done with a bar chart, you’ve missed the best visualization. That’s why you get mush – not because the design is missing, but because the analysis is.

  • Jeff

    I would subtitle Information as “Linked data.”

  • Sue

    wisdom = concepts?

  • Leif Czerny

    I love your work!
    As for the current work in progress – the wisdom triangle seems a bit overcrowded to me. If i get your idea, wisdom provides uns with norms to discriminate whole categories of the world, wihle knowledge is still about the structure or evaluation of the given data. Wisdom has to be applicable to all possible data, it transforms knowledge of certain entities into an ability. Insofar it becomes practical (what you call applied).
    I’d like to suggest that wisdom is “illustrated” as konwledge is mapped.

    Sorry for the length, Thanks for all the beauty!

  • Alix Morrow

    I think it ladders to involvement or ‘connectedness’-

  • Greg Comfort

    Hi Dave. I worked in the KM industry for a few years and used to see this sort of diagram a lot.

    I like what you’ve done with it and think much of it makes sense. I like the visualization slant on it but I’m so glad you put a question mark at the top for the visualization.

    I have seen so many IT companies involved in KM use this diagram the wrong way, usually inferring to customers you can capture things in the top two layers using a computer. IMHO, and in that of the few in the KM industry whose advice I trust, you can’t. These people sell “KM software” alleging you can “capture knowledge” and they often talk about transforming information up the triangle like it’s a hierarchy, naturally using their database or “web2.0″ platform. Gives me the shivers every time.

    And as Dave Snowden once said – if you ever hear anyone talking about capturing wisdom, shoot them on sight!

  • Destiny

    I agree this reminds me of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Also David DiBiase’s work on Cartography and Visualization.

  • Adrian B

    I, personally, would like to see this displayed in a different format. Let the concept speak for itself. Right now, with the pyramid metaphor, it describes the act of Information Hierarchy, but doesn’t actually utilize the concept.

  • Karl

    Would you believe I drew the EXACT same diagram during a discussion about 12 years ago? (minus your nice details in each layer) I use it with many audiences to explore concepts around data-mining and generally poo-pooing modern cultural references to “knowledge generation” or “knowledge management”. I also use it to support an argument that many-person collaboration seldom (if ever) results in the deepest understanding (wisdom) that allows a new stretch to occur, despite Web 2.0 and the Cloud. “Scholarship is a solitary endeavor.” (John Adams)

  • James

    It seems to me the flow could be tweaked. Perhaps the base should be information, followed by data, followed by understanding, followed by knowledge, with the overall paradigm being one of visual wisdom. This flow seems to work for me, particularly in the contexts I feel it could be applied…regardless, I love this site. Have a great weekend

  • ismael peña-lópez

    could those question marks on top of the figure be replaced by “flowchart”?

    I mean: visualization – design – map – flowchart.

    If wisdom is the application of knowledge, flowcharting as the counterpart of that stage would make perfect sense to me.



    PS: Thanks so much for your blog.

  • Kim

    This is a useful model that can be stretched by adding at least one additional level near the top: Insights reside in the space between knowledge and wisdom.

    For this purpose, let’s define insights as the ability to reason from current knowledge to generate additional knowledge, to connect beyond the current experience. Insights may be glimmers of wisdom, but one can have insights without being fully wise.

    Putting the example to use, Columbus had insights about geography that enabled him to uncover (or recover prior) knowledge about the shape of the Earth, yet an expected circumference of 8,000 miles so limited his globe that he mistook the New World for a slice of Asia.

  • SB

    have a look on erwin panofsky theory:
    “Studies in Iconology”

  • Jacob

    Now when I first looked at this, the top section of the pyramid cried out for ‘disseminate’.

    What is wisdom if not to share?

    I may totally be missing the point, but that’s what felt like was missing.

    Perhaps to totally go against the grain the top section could instead be an inverted trapezium. Though I understand there may be no place for such radical thinking…

  • V. Sigmundsson

    I would argue that in between knowledge and wisdom there should be a layer called understanding.

    Knowledge + thinking = understanding.

    Understanding + experience = wisdom.

  • Martien van Steenbergen

    Data: datasphere.
    Info: infosphere.
    Knowledge: knowledgesphere.
    Cybersphere = datasphere + infosphere + knowledgesphere.
    Wisdom: noosphere (our emerging hypercortex).

    Noosphere founded on cybersphere founded on biosphere founded on lithosphere.

    Cybersphere uses (both non-verbal as verbal) language and semiotics(?).

    Google Translate

  • Kristoffer

    I’ve previously read a lot of academic work on tacit knowledge and in that search I found some texts by Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak. They are some of the few (that I’ve found) that makes the distinction between data – information – knowledge – wisdom, like you.

    Maybe their work can be of inspiration to you:

  • Michael Kreil

    I really like the concept. It made me think about the transition from data to wisdom:

    Maybe it is not a stair with 4 steps. But more like a fluid process. A seamless transition from incoherent facts to deep integrated knowledge in our associative minds. So I tried a different approach:

    (Obviously I’m not a designer.)

    Michael Kreil

  • Thomas Sanjurjo

    I think the vertical axis would be more appropriately called “ownership” of information.

    As you move up the pyramid the information becomes more personal, what is not necessary or significant to “me in particular” is weeded out for what is personally driving. That adds an interesting depth to the model, as where any given piece of information would fit changes from person to person.
    I, for example, would not be concerned in the least with the price of a pair of designer shoes, whereas someone else could base some part of their budget on acquiring those same shoes.
    Or for a more broad example: The banning of the hijab in France caused an uproar in the Muslim community, whereas banning people from wearing a certain type of headcovering would be no big deal (besides an invasion of general rights) in Western cultures.

  • Curtis Cunningham

    I always found that I got confused after Knowledge+Wisdom… Instead my current fav way of looking at this is…

    Data : Discrete Data
    Information : Data in context, reports, dashboards, visualizations
    Insight: Wow that really helped me to answer my question!
    Action: I will take some sort of action as a result (hire, fire, buy, sell, …)
    Value: I realized value as a result of the action

  • Leevan Banzuelo

    I think “actualization” should take the place of “???”. And I agree with Lexie — you can get ideas from observing and studying other pyramid charts like the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Good luck to you.

  • Jure

    Here’s the wikipedia article on this piramid:

  • Omar Mustafa

    This is an interesting visualisation. It mirrors the Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. It has been adjusted to show stages of education and excellence.

  • Howard Silverman

    Here are some definitions from Russell Ackoff’s “From Data to Wisdom”:

    Knowledge is know-how, for example, how a system works. It is what makes possible the transformation of information into instructions. It makes control of a system possible. To control a system is to make it work efficiently. …

    Knowledge can be obtained in two ways: either by transmission from another who has it, by instruction, or by extracting it from experience. In either cast the acquisition of knowledge is learning. …

    Learning and adaptation, and knowledge and understanding, focus on efficiency, not effectiveness. Both efficiency and effectiveness are determined relative to one of more objectives. The value of these objectives is not relevant to the determination of efficiency, but it is relevant to the determination of effectiveness. The effectiveness of behavior is a function of both its efficiency for one of more desired outcomes and the values of those outcomes.

    Now it can make a critical point: Intelligence is the ability to increase efficiency; wisdom is the ability to increase effectiveness.

    The difference between efficiency and effectiveness, that which differentiates wisdom from understanding, knowledge, and information, is reflected in the difference between growth and development. Growth does not necessarily imply an increase in value; development does. Development is the process by which wisdom is increased.