Well obviously if you have read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you know that the answer to life, the universe and everything is ….. 42
I would suggest that 42 is just a piece of metadata that has been appended to our reality. OK, that’s enough of the metaphysics. While the book might have been joking, I am not. Metadata is that important to all your data, information, and business processes, and I will explain why.
I am guessing that most people reading this post have at least some idea of what metadata is, but lets start with definitions, just in case.
The Oxford English Dictionary says metadata is, “a set of data which gives information about other data”.
I might say that this statement is beautiful in its simplicity, but the International Standards Organisation (ISO) builds on it a little: “Data that defines and describes other data”.
This progression is nice, because we have gone from information about data, to defining and describing data, we have gone from a loosely defined noun to two verbs telling us what the uses of metadata can be. Let’s take it further though, and consider a more technical definition, as provided by Gartner Group: “Information that describes various facets of an information asset to improve its usability throughout its life cycle. It is metadata that turns information into an asset.”
Now we are really getting somewhere with that final statement, metadata turns information (or data I would posit) into an asset, where an asset is itself defined as something useful or of value. This is an appropriate time to add that some people refer to metadata as tags and add metadata as tagging. Others have been trained on certain software might talk about document attributes, or for example in MS Office applications, document properties. These are all examples of metadata fields.
Types of metadata, and what we can do with them.
There is a whole world of metadata standards, but describing these in detail is beyond the scope of a blog post, so lets abbreviate the world of metadata into 3 main types, that I think most experts would agree with:
- Descriptive metadata literally describes your data or information asset and enables discovery, identification, and selection of resources. It can include elements such as title, author, and subjects or keywords.
- Administrative metadata facilities the management of resources. It can include technical elements such as file type, creation information, preservation information, intellectual property rights and usage rights.
- Structural metadata is generally used in machine processing and describes how the components of an object are structured or how the relationships among various parts of a resource are organized, such as how pages are grouped to form chapters in a book.
As to what we can do with metadata, well the world is your oyster. Generally speaking the more metadata, you can attach to an information asset, the better! But there is a big caveat attached to this – people. Yes, that’s right people.
If you rely on human intervention in the form of manual processes to enrich metadata to your assets, your content files, your documents, then generally speaking the research shows that people get fed up with adding metadata after just 3 fields. You can make it easy for them by providing values they can pick from a drop-down menu, so they don’t have to think up their own values to add, but still after 3 fields, people are generally done. Once upon a time, it was thought the way around this was to make the fields mandatory, that is you could not upload a file, or save a document without adding the mandatory fields of metadata. Well, this might work in some circumstances, but in others it just leads to circumvention of official processes and may even lead to the use of shadow IT – tools that are easier to use. You can try to educate people on the utility and awesomeness of metadata, and on how it will help the organization, but people usually have more pressing concerns to worry about. So, the answer to this problem is to automate the generation of metadata as much as possible, and we will come back to that.
The value proposition.
So why is metadata so important? How does it help turn data or information into assets? We can start with an acronym taken from the research world, FAIR, which describes metadata as valuable for:
- Findability – metadata can drastically improve the findability of your data and information, from word processing documents to multi-media files of all types. Being able to find the right content at the right time prevents people from having to re-invent the wheel and re-create an asset even though they know one already exists…. Somewhere!
- Accessibility – metadata can include things like W3C accessibility tags, enabling the other metadata benefits for people with certain difficulties using computers. It can include authorization data, enabling functionality like data loss prevention or digital rights management;
- Interoperability – being able to swap, read and understand data between your own systems, and those of your partners is enabled by metadata that specifically addresses interoperability. This might include metadata fields that state what type of encoding is used on your data files, or type of system was used to create the data.
- Re-usability – metadata which address how data was created , or collected, often used with large sets of numerical, structured data to describe what type of data sets they are, so that they can be replicated; specific use cases include scientific, medical or engineering research and development, or financial services.
When you manage metadata, its important to remember that adding them to your files can help in so many ways and business process specific use cases. For example many organization still have TB’s of data in Network Drives (aka File Shares), which due to the underlying technology can have very few descriptive or administrative metadata elements. By using Shinydocs customers can classify the files in their file shares, and make that classification available to systems, applications and users through metadata tags. For example with simple metadata fields and value pairs like:
- Document contains PII = Yes
- Record Retention Period = 7 years
- Document is on legal hold = No
- Category = Finance
- Document Type = Invoice
- Department = Accounts Receivable
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