Defend Truth


Rubbish in, rubbish out: On its own, raw and uninterpreted, data means absolutely nothing


Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa. It is part of the University of Reading UK, originally an extension college of Oxford University, renowned for its leadership in climate science, finance, property management and executive education, and one of the most international universities in Britain. Henley is committed to transformation and holds a Level 2 B-BBEE ranking. If you would like to find out how you could unlock your future with Henley Africa, go to

There’s a gulf of difference between data, information and intelligence. Data in a raw form is just measurements — of temperatures, sentiments, inanimate things. To make sense of data, we categorise it to analyse it. It’s quantitative and qualitative. We try to interpret it in a way that adds value: data becomes information and in turn intelligence that we can use.

As we move ever further over the threshold into the new normal of a Covid-19 world, we are awash in data. There are algorithms that work out what we like, fed every time we click on a website or “like” something on social media. Artificial intelligence knows more about us than we do ourselves; it knows more about our businesses.

Ultimately AI will lead to autonomous driving, autonomous shopping, perhaps even autonomous living — or will it? There’s data available on everything. Masses and masses of it, expanding every day as we add smart devices to our lives, tracking heartbeats and steps and even our pulse oxygen levels.

But what does it mean? On its own, raw and uninterpreted, absolutely nothing. In fact, in the wrong hands, it could be catastrophic, like typing in Parys into the GPS and only realising that when you’re crossing the Zambezi on your way north, rather than the Vaal, that you chose the wrong Paris.

There’s a gulf of difference between data, information and intelligence. Data in a raw form is just measurements — of temperatures, sentiments, inanimate things. To make sense of data, we categorise it to analyse it. It’s quantitative and qualitative. We try to interpret it in a way that adds value: data becomes information and in turn intelligence that we can use.

Living through this infodemic, it immediately becomes clear that data doesn’t just need to be analysed, it also needs to be intelligently interpreted and summarised. There’s a reason why CEOs and political leaders like position papers; they don’t have the time to do the research, to do the analysis of the data into information and the interpretation of the information into intelligence. They need it done for them so that they can look at the executive summary — what it means, here, now — to agree or disagree with it and order the necessary action. The “what?” to the “so what?” to the “now what?”

It’s one of the greatest ironies that the ostensible objective purity of information, on which we place so much importance, only becomes truly valuable when it is rendered into intelligence by the subjective input of those insightful and skilled enough to be able to interpret it within a specific context. Without that, data are just grains of sand on an endless beach. The key, to paraphrase the great poet William Blake, is to see heaven in that grain of sand. All too often, though, that heaven can be hell because the people analysing it don’t have the proper context and experience to interpret it or their agenda overrides all else.

In the end, then, we value subjectivity more than objectivity — intelligence more than information. But this is also the greatest risk that we face. While objective data is neutral and thus purposeless, subjective interpretation is full of meaning created by the purpose it’s intended for — but what meaning and whose purpose? Who interpreted it? What was the agenda? That’s often where it falls flat because, as US author and entrepreneur Seth Godin reminds us, if you want the data to work, to get people to act, you’ve got to know what it is that it’s telling you and why that’s important for the people to hear.

Far too often, in business and in government, those at the top lose sight of the market or the constituents: the people themselves. In the process, the message gets lost and the company or government pay the price. We have seen this throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in the furious contest between the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers.

Although it’s ostensibly a scientific argument, nothing could be further from the truth, it’s actually all about politics — just like climate change or species extinction. For any rational, and in my view, ethical person reading the science, there shouldn’t be a choice: we have to cut our carbon emissions and pivot countries to renewable energy. Equally, we should get the vaccine when it is available, we should wear masks in public, wash our hands and keep our distance from one another.

The fact that we even have to have that discussion illustrates the greatest truth of all: politicians, not scientists hold the power. Even amid the greatest public health crisis in living memory, politics trumps science. The world is run by politicians who bring together multiple interests, often including their own self-interest, and in the process derail the scientists and the critical discussions we need to have.

Scientists bemoan this state of affairs and rail against the politicians who wilfully don’t understand what is at stake. It’s easy to blame the politicians, but in truth, the scientists should look to themselves for not appreciating how the world works — and forging collaborations that work by marrying the message of their scientific data with people who have the power to effect real change.

As the great sage of our time, Yuval Noah Harari said only last month, pandemics are no longer natural disasters, they’re now political failures. This is evident in the disparate trajectory of the pandemic across the world: the appalling runaway waves of infection in Brazil and Tanzania, continually mutating into new strains; as well as the vaccination dithering that has beset Europe, leaving it at the mercy of a virulent third wave; and, ironically, boosting the popularity of Brexit.

The problem with human beings is that we are caught in a perpetual dance between science, objectivity, and the process of interpretation and the subjectivity that is brought to bear. It’s a messy dynamic, further muddied by our natural need to escape the complexity of uncertainty by being precisely right in what we do.

If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it’s that we can’t be precisely right because the science has been changing and our systems of knowledge have evolved and increased. Those who have waited for certainty have found themselves left behind, those who ignored it all together have consigned their nations to the mercy of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating — and their own reputations to the scrapheaps of history. It’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.

At the end of the day, every decision we make is based on multiple imponderables. The decision we come to is the most valid hypothesis we can devise by marrying the cause and effect to all the facts and figures before us, but there’s no guarantee and there’s no certainty that it will work.

That’s no excuse to not act though — and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in government or in business. Truly ethical people get results. Study the data… and then trust your humanity, your gut — and act. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    What a great article, and extremely pertinent.
    I’m at an age (57) where I’m realising my perfectionism might well be an issue … maybe not be required or even appropriate.
    So, I’m delegating more, and trusting, with mutual oversight and goal oriented.
    Something I doubt governments, due to short-termism, simply can’t get their heads around.
    Doesn’t work how their world works.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Agree with you Mark.
    While on the science topic, all experts and assessors of the Mountain fire state it was caused by someone living there and making a breakfast fire.
    I looked at my hydrometer Sunday morning in Claremont and noticed the air humidity was exceptionally low.
    The fire was started by human action while the environmental conditions where extremely favorable for rapid combustion.
    And then the wind picked up, first northerly, then swung rund to a howling south Easter.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted