What is Data?

2015-06-20 - Definitions

The etymological roots of data stem from the latin term “dare”, which means “to give”, “to present”, “to offer”. The term “data” is the plural form of the passive particle perfect “datum” and can be translated with “given” or “delivered”. Hence, in its orginal meaning and till the middle ages the term “data” had a temporal and location-dependent connotation and was often used with reference to the delievery of a message or letter at a certain time or place. From the mid 17th century on it was mainly used as a term in philosophy mostly used to name materialized collections of facts.

Oxford Dictionaries lists three contemporary definitions of the term “data”:

  1. Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis.
  2. The quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer, which may be stored and transmitted in the form of electrical signals and recorded on magnetic, optical, or mechanical recording media.
  3. Philosophy: Things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning or calculation.

Further definitions are provided by:


Characteristics or information, usually numerical, that are collected through observation.


Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems

A reinterpretable representation of information in a formalized manner suitable for communication, interpretation, or processing.


The physical representation of information in a manner suitable for communication, interpretation, or processing by human beings or by automatic means.

United Nations

  1. Systematic information about the attributes of the entities contained in some well-defined aggregate, such as the person records produced from a census or survey, or the birth or death records produced from a civil registration system. Data of this type may be referred to as “micro” or “unit record” or “individual level” data. Data in this sense is synonymous with data set. Though the information contained on records may be quantitative, the definition of the aggregate is necessarily textual, so that data always involves a qualitative element as well.
  2. Numeric information derived from such data, such as a table of numbers of persons in various age-sex groups derived from population census data. Data of this kind may be referred to as “macro” or “aggregate” or “tabular” data. In the terminology of the field of statistics, a statistic.
  3. Quantitative information in general, including estimates, indicators and statistics of all kinds.

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