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Discrete Data vs. Continuous Data: What’s the Difference?

By April 19, 2021 No Comments

We create data every day, oftentimes without even realizing it. To put a number on it, it’s estimated that each day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data worldwide. Tasks as simple as sending a text message, submitting a job application, or streaming your favorite TV show are all included in this daily total. However, not all of this data is created equal.

Similar to the many unique ways there are to create data, there is also a corresponding array of various data types. Data types are important in determining how the data is ultimately measured and used to make assumptions.

Let’s get down to the fundamentals of numeric data types as we explore discrete data, continuous data, and their importance when it comes to Big Data and analytics.

Numeric Data Types

Numerical data types, or quantitative data, is what people typically think of when they hear the word “data.” Numerical data types express information in the form of numbers and assign numerical meaning to data. There are two primary types of numerical data: discrete and continuous data.

What is Discrete Data?

Discrete data also referred to as discrete values, is data that only takes certain values. Commonly in the form of whole numbers or integers, this is data that can be counted and has a finite number of values. These values must be able to fall within certain classifications and are unable to be broken down into smaller parts.

Some examples of discrete data would include:

  • The number of employees in your department
  • The number of new customers you signed on last quarter
  • The number of products currently held in inventory

All of these examples detail a distinct and separate value that can be counted and assigned a fixed numerical value

What is Continuous Data?

Continuous data refers to data that can be measured. This data has values that are not fixed and have an infinite number of possible values. These measurements can also be broken down into smaller individual parts.

Some examples of continuous data would include:

  • The height or weight of a person
  • The daily temperature in your city
  • The amount of time needed to complete a task or project

These examples portray data that can be placed on a continuum. The values can be continually measured at any point in time or placed within a range of values. The distinguishing factor being that the values are measured over time rather than fixed.

Continuous data is commonly displayed in visualizations such as histograms due to the element of variable change over time.

Discrete Data vs. Continuous Data

Discrete and continuous data are commonly confused with one another due to their similarities as numerical data types. The primary difference, though, between discrete and continuous data is that discrete data is a finite value that can be counted whereas continuous data has an infinite number of possible values that can be measured.

If you’re questioning whether or not you’re working with discrete or continuous data, try asking yourself questions such as:

  • Can these values be counted?
  • Can these values be measured?
  • Can these values be broken down into smaller parts and still make sense?

The Importance of Numerical Data Types

Discrete and continuous data both play a vital role in data exploration and analysis. Though it is easy to review definitions and straightforward examples, data is often filled with a mixture of data types. Making the need to be able to identify data types all the more important.

Additionally, many exploratory methods and analytical approaches only work with specific data types. For this reason, being able to determine the nature of your data will make handling your data more manageable and effective when it comes to yielding timely insights.

Scottie Todd

Scottie Todd

Digital Marketing Coordinator

"Level 4 marketing wizard on a quest for data insights one blog post at a time."