Synthetic Data

Data that is artificially generated as opposed to using real-world data sources.

Reason for Topic

Data has value outside of production environments, and organizations can create or extract value from that data by using it for testing, machine learning, or user/customer research, as an example. Choosing to use production data comes with significant risks and responsibilities including regulatory, privacy, and ethical. Although there are technologies, such as Data Anonymization, that can help organizations address some of these concerns, an organization may still not be able to find the right balance of cost and risk. Another way to address these concerns is to use Synthetic Data for some or all of the non-production data needs of an organization. 

Introduction / Definition

Synthetic data is data that is artificially generated rather than collected from real-world sources. It can be created using algorithms or computer simulations that mimic the patterns and characteristics of real data. Synthetic data can be used for a variety of purposes, including training machine learning models, validating mathematical models, and testing software applications, among others. The use of synthetic data has become increasingly popular in recent years as it offers several advantages over using real-world data, including increased control over the data, greater diversity and balance, and enhanced privacy and security. 

Benefits & Examples

Organizations may use synthetic data for several reasons, including: 

  • Data privacy: Synthetic data can be generated without including any sensitive or personally identifiable information, which is important for companies that handle sensitive data. By using synthetic data instead of real data, companies can minimize the risk of a data breach or privacy violation. 
  • Cost and accessibility: Gathering real-world data can be time-consuming and expensive. In some cases, it may also be impossible to obtain certain types of data due to legal or ethical constraints. Synthetic data provides an affordable and accessible alternative for companies that need data to train their machine learning models or validate their algorithms. 
  • Control and customization: Synthetic data can be generated with specific parameters and characteristics that match the needs of a particular project or application. This allows companies to have more control over the data they use for their models, and to customize it in ways that would be difficult or impossible with real-world data. 
  • Diversity and balance: Real-world data can be biased or unbalanced in certain ways, which can affect the accuracy and fairness of machine learning models trained on that data. Synthetic data can be generated to address these issues by creating a more diverse and balanced dataset. 
  • Data gaps and suitability: There may be gaps in the available data either because a feature is under development or because the needed data was not being captured. It is also possible that the data is available, but it cannot be utilized appropriately without compromising privacy or regulatory compliance. In these cases, synthetic data may be generated to fill the gaps in the data. 

Overall, the use of synthetic data can help companies to overcome some of the limitations and challenges associated with real-world data, while still providing a useful tool for machine learning and algorithm development.  

Methods that can be used to generate synthetic data include: 

  • Random sampling: One of the simplest methods for generating synthetic data is random sampling. This involves randomly selecting values within a specified range or distribution to create a dataset that mimics the characteristics of a real-world dataset. 
  • Simulation: Simulation involves using computer models or algorithms to generate data that closely mimics the patterns and characteristics of real-world data. This can be done by creating models that simulate real-world processes or by using statistical techniques to generate synthetic data based on real-world patterns. 
  • Generative adversarial networks (GANs): GANs are a type of deep learning algorithm that can be used to generate synthetic data. They work by training two neural networks – a generator and a discriminator – to create synthetic data that is indistinguishable from real data. 
  • Data augmentation: Data augmentation involves manipulating existing data to create new synthetic data. This can include techniques such as rotating, cropping, or flipping images, or adding noise to data to create variations. 
  • Transfer learning: Transfer learning involves using pre-trained machine learning models to generate synthetic data that closely matches the patterns and characteristics of real-world data. This can be particularly useful for applications where there is limited real-world data available. 

These are just a few examples of the methods that can be used to generate synthetic data. The choice of method will depend on the specific application and the characteristics of the real-world data that need to be replicated. 

Drawbacks / Gotchas

While synthetic data has many advantages, there are also some drawbacks and potential problems associated with its use, including: 

  • Quality and accuracy: The quality and accuracy of synthetic data can vary depending on the algorithms and simulations used to generate it. If the synthetic data does not accurately reflect the patterns and characteristics of real-world data, then machine learning models or algorithms trained on it may not perform well in the real world. 
  • Biases and assumptions: Synthetic data is generated based on assumptions and biases that are built into the algorithms and simulations used to create it. If these assumptions and biases are not representative of the real world, then the synthetic data may also be biased and not reflect real-world patterns. 
  • Limited diversity: While synthetic data can be generated with specific characteristics and parameters, it may not reflect the full diversity of real-world data. This can lead to models that are not robust enough to handle unexpected variations in the data. 
  • Lack of context: Synthetic data may not capture the full context of real-world data, such as social and cultural factors, which can be important in certain applications. 
  • Overfitting: If synthetic data is generated to closely mimic a particular dataset, then machine learning models or algorithms trained on it may overfit to that dataset and not generalize well to new data. 


Overall, it is important to carefully evaluate the quality and representativeness of synthetic data before using it in machine learning or algorithm development. It should be used as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, real-world data.