We bandy them about like Peter Sissons on election night but, most of the time, when we examine them closely, they turn out to meaningless: lost in the margins of error, approximations of this, surrogates for that, models built on assumptions resting on estimates.
The web was supposed to change all that, and to some extent it has. Hits and views and clicks all do seem to measure something real, not aggregates or samples, but still, we're not quite sure what they mean, what the behaviour is that they're symptoms of. And even though the transactional stuff, clicks leading to actual purchases, is new and exciting, it's not something most products can hope to attain in most of the channels where they're sold.
But maybe soon, we'll finally get some meaty data we can use, as more and more people and objects start generating data about their actual behaviour in the world. Of course, we've had objects reporting on their own behaviour for a while: Tower Bridge has a Twitter account telling you when it'll be open and many Rolls-Royce aero engines generate a stream of data that gets transmitted back to their home base - allowing on-the-fly diagnostics and timely maintenance updates.
And with open and easy channels such as Twitter and automation tools like the Arduino, more and more objects will get added to the web. It probably won't be long before there are more things online than people and that's going to be a whole new challenge for business. Imagine selling someone a car, then negotiating with them about how much of that car's streaming performance and location data belongs to them and how much belongs to you. How much is that data worth? What's the retention value of it? And how many service departments are equipped to handle that much data?
It gets even more interesting when people start streaming data about their own behaviour. PruHealth will give you a reduction in your health insurance costs if you walk more than 10,000 steps in a day and, to verify this, you get a pedometer that squirts data through your computer to a website. Similarly, Norwich Union has a programme that uses GPS to track your car and adjusts your insurance costs dependent on when and where you use it. Think about that: thousands of people are cheerfully monitoring their own behaviour and then transmitting it to an insurance company.
Privacy's clearly not a black-and-white issue. These are exciting times for data fans. There's going to be more and more of it, and it'll be more and more real. But we're only just beginning to wrestle with what it'll all mean.