Today I will be covering the difference between discrete vs continuous data. This is an important concept to grasp as a data analyst and one that can confuse some data newbies.
What is discrete data?
Discrete data has the following characteristics: finite, countable and whole (nondivisible) numbers. Though discrete data is nondivisible, averages of this data may result in decimal numbers. For example, a family has 1, 2, 3… children. You cannot have half a child, however, the average number of children in all of the families in your data set may be 2.5.
Categorical data
Discrete data can also be made up of categorical data, and categorical data can be broken down into nominal or ordinal data.
Nominal Data
Nominal data is used for qualitative data that cannot be put into a logical sequence. It includes categorical names rather than numbers. For example, genres of film and TV can be described with words such as “Comedy”, “Drama”, “Action” etc. Though these are not numbers, this is still discrete data. Nominal data should be made up of mutually exclusive categories; for example, blood type is A, B, AB or O, you cannot have a bit of type A and a bit of type AB blood in your body.
Ordinal Data
In contrast, ordinal data may also use categories, however these can be logically sequenced. For example, temperature may be described as “freezing”, “cold”, “mild”, “warm”, “hot”. Or a survey response may be ordered from “strongly disagree”, “disagree”, “neither agree nor disagree”, “agree” to “strongly agree”.
It is important to note that though nominal and ordinal data is usually representative of words, however it may be encoded and represented with numbers in a dataset.
Recap:
Discrete data is either whole, countable, finite numbers or categorical data. Think of realworld examples, you cannot have half a dog at the animal shelter, but the average number of dogs per year may result in a decimal number.
The dog breed is a good example of categorical data, even breeds that are mixed together result in their own breed — think of all the oodle breeds you’ve heard of. If a dog has so many breeds in it, that it is completely unknown, then the category for the nominal data of “Dog Breed” may be “mut”.
Discrete Data examples:
Numerical/Quantitative 
Nominal 
Ordinal 
Number of students in a school 
Subjects offered by a school 
Grades offered by a school 
Population of a country 
Names of states in a country 
Age groups of a population 
Number of animals in a shelter 
Types of animals in a shelter 
Date each animal arrives at the shelter 
Number of bags of blood in a blood bank 
Blood types 

Result of rolling a die 
Names of winners of a game 
Game number 
Longitude and latitude 
Name of a street in that longitude/latitude 
House/building numbers on the street 
What is continuous data?
Continuous data is representative of continuous measures — meaning it can be broken up into fractions and decimal values.
Examples of continuous data include height, weight, mass, speed, temperature, length and distance. Time is also commonly measured in a continuous manner.
You can create discrete data from continuous data by grouping it and converting it into ordinal data (discussed above). For example, weight is a continuous measure, however it is often divided into certain groups for certain sports — e.g. the eight boxing weight classes ranging from flyweight to heavyweight boxers.
Line charts are more common for continuous data because a line suggests that the data continues from one point to another.
Rounding up
To see examples of how the nature of your data can influence your visualisations in Tableau, read my blog on dealing with discrete and continuous data in Tableau.
Did you know that Tableau uses blue to represent discrete data and green to represent continuous data? I have written a blog about blue vs green and dimensions vs measures in Tableau.
For now, I hope this blog has helped you to understand the difference between discrete and continuous data. Happy data analyzing!