1 An introduction to data and information
1.1 What this course is about
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate …
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’
Some years ago I was playing with my nephew. ‘Guess what’, he said. ‘My gran remembers before there was television!’ He was clearly thinking about the past in terms of ‘before there was television’.
At that time, I was working in computing, and most people couldn't really understand what I did. Computers were mysterious boxes that were hidden away in large, secure buildings in major companies and government organisations. The average person came in contact with them only in the form of stories in the press or printed statements they received from their bank or gas supplier.
All that has changed, as dramatically and as completely as from ‘before television’ to the present day. Today, most people experience computers not as remote machines producing bills or directing space flight (though they still do these things), but in two ways:
as a medium that combines graphics, video, sound and text to impart information and a means of enabling us to shop on the internet, and so on;
as a ubiquitous but hardly noticeable means of controlling everything from toasters to air traffic.
Whether or not you realise it, you are not only surrounded by computers but you have a persona created by the data associated with you. Some of this data you create yourself, consciously. Some is created when you open a bank account, enrol on a course, shop using a loyalty card, and so on. How much of this persona of yours is public, whether the data it contains is correct, and whether it should be held in the public domain are all things you need to be aware of.
Take a moment to look in your wallet or purse. What kind of persona do you think you present through the cards and documents it holds? Each of these is likely to mean that some organisation holds electronic records about you.
This is what I found in my wallet:
two credit cards;
a store card;
three library cards for different libraries;
membership cards for the National Trust and RSPB;
loyalty cards for an airline and a car hire firm;
my National Health Service medical card.
Your wallet or purse is likely to contain similar items. The point is that various organisations (the DVLC in Swansea, the credit card companies, a department store, several libraries, as well as the NHS) all hold data about me. Probably they hold my name, age, date of birth, and address in common, but each will also hold data that is different from the others. For example, I have three bank accounts, two with the same bank, and one with another. The two different banks may have very different views of my finances!
My persona consists of all of this data, whether I am aware of it or not. That is what I mean by a persona: a ‘picture’ of you created by various collections of data about you, such as your finances, shopping habits, interests.
You might like to ask yourself at this point how aware you were, before doing the above Exercise, that so much information about you existed in the public domain.