Statistics Canada
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Data

Before one can present and interpret information, there has to be a process of gathering and sorting data. Just as trees are the raw material from which paper is produced, so too, can data be viewed as the raw material from which information is obtained.

In fact, a good definition of data is "facts or figures from which conclusions can be drawn".

Data, information and statistics are often misunderstood. They are actually different things, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1. Data collected on the weight of 20 individuals in your classroom
Data Information Statistics
20 kg, 25 kg 5 individuals in the 20-to-25-kg range Mean weight = 22.5 kg
28 kg, 30 kg, etc. 15 individuals in the 26-to-30-kg range Median weight = 28 kg

Data can take various forms, but are often numerical. As such, data can relate to an enormous variety of aspects, for example:

  • the daily weight measurements of each individual in your classroom;
  • the number of movie rentals per month for each household in your neighbourhood;
  • the city's temperature (measured every hour) for a one-week period.

Other forms of data exist, such as radio signals, digitized images and laser patterns on compact discs.

Statistics Canada collects data every day to provide information.

Once data have been collected and processed, they are ready to be organized into information. Indeed, it is hard to imagine reasons for collecting data other than to provide information. This information leads to knowledge about issues, and helps individuals and groups make informed decisions.

In practice, informed decision-making can save countries millions of dollars (for example, through accurate targeting of government spending). It can also lead to life saving breakthroughs in medicine, and can help conserve the earth's natural environment.

Information

A good definition of information is "data that have been recorded, classified, organized, related, or interpreted within a framework so that meaning emerges".

Information, like data, can take various forms. Some examples of the different types of information that can be derived from data include:

  • the number of persons in a group in each weight category (20 to 25 kg, 26 to 30 kg, etc.);
  • the total number of households that did not rent a movie during the last month; and
  • the number of days during the week where the temperature went above 20°C.

Some of the first known artifacts found in Canada provided ancient peoples with information that we still use today. The astrolabe is a scientific instrument dating back to 170 B.C. Complex planetary astrolabes were used to measure the altitude of the planets and stars to track their movements. From these calculations, latitude and time could also be determined.

The astrolabe
The astrolabe

In the 16th century, a simpler nautical or mariner's astrolabe was developed for navigational use. The one pictured above is believed to be the astrolabe used by Christopher Columbus. He would have aligned the horizontal axis of the astrolabe with the horizon of the sky. He would then have directed the moveable pointer ("Alidade") towards the sun or polar star and read the position on its outer dial. The measurement noted was then compared to the astronomical tables in order to fix his latitude. In recent years, astronomers have used beams of radio waves to explore space. Also, the increase in television and video use has made visual information a popular tool.

In the 17th century, English philosopher Francis Bacon recognized the importance of knowledge. His quotation below is probably truer today than it has ever been, and is an important reason why the general public should have access to information.

"Knowledge itself is power."
Francis Bacon

Statistics

Statistics represent a common method of presenting information. In general, statistics relate to numerical data, and can refer to the science of dealing with the numerical data itself. Above all, statistics aim to provide useful information by means of numbers.

Therefore, a good definition of statistics is "a type of information obtained through mathematical operations on numerical data".

Score of hockey game
Toronto Maple Leafs Edmonton Oilers
6 5

Using the previous examples, some of the statistics that can be obtained include:

Statistics obtained
Information Statistics
the number of persons in a group in each weight category (20 to 25 kg, 26 to 30 kg, etc.); the average weight of students in your class
the total number of households that did not rent a movie during the last month; and the minimum number of rentals your household had to make to be in the top 5% of renters for the last month; and
the number of days during the week where the temperature went above 20°C. the minimum and maximum temperature observed each day of the week

A major role of Statistics Canada is to provide the Canadian community with statistics that will help society make informed decisions. Statistical information provided by Statistics Canada is used widely by governments, business people, doctors, farmers, teachers and students.

The provision of accurate and authoritative statistical information strengthens modern societies. It provides a basis for decisions to be made on such things as where to open schools and hospitals, how much money to spend on welfare payments and even which football players to replace at half-time! An example of statistical information that can be used for decision-making is given below.

"Average earnings of young people aged 15 to 24 have been declining since 1980. The impact of changes in overall economic activity on youth differs from that of other age groups. For example, during good economic times, job opportunities for young people grow, but their earnings do not appear to grow at the same rate as those of experienced workers. During 1970 to 1980 and 1985 to 1990, real average earnings of young people increased, but at a rate slightly lower than the overall rate of increase.

During the tough economic times between 1980 and 1985, and in the early 1990s, their average earnings fell about 20%, much more than the overall rate of decline.

In 1970 and 1980, the average earnings of young people aged 15 to 24 were around one-half of the overall national average. By 1995, they had declined to 31%. As a result of these changes, the position of young earners relative to other age groups consistently deteriorated between 1980 and 1995.

The average earnings for the 15 to 24 age group in 1980 was $13,191 while the average earnings in 1995 for the same age group was $8,199."

Source: Statistics Canada, "The Daily", Tuesday, May 12, 1998.