“Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves.”
Think, for a second, about how a retailer populates all the product information you see on a web site. Is there a guy behind the scenes, manually typing, “dress, red, available in sizes X through Y, priced at $50.00” and so on? Perhaps, but probably not. At some point it simply becomes unsustainable to type product descriptions by hand. It is not a big deal if you’re selling one dress or four or five, but what happens when you want to sell hundreds of dresses and thousands of accessories, a few hats and that entire inventory turns over every few days? It is no longer manageable to have just one person typing each product description and publishing the information to the web site. Instead, we use automated systems that communicate between each other. The wholesaler or manufacturer’s system will transmit data about the products in bulk and the retailer’s system can ingest that information and use it to populate their product information database. So, instead of typing, “Dress #1, blue, size XL, $75” over and over, the retailer can now just ask for a spreadsheet with the same information. This spreadsheet will be read by the retailer’s systems and used to populate the site with relevant information pertaining to each dress. The spreadsheet itself? Well that’s metadata.
The most common definition of metadata is that it is data about data. It is the standardized set of information about an asset that will be used to communicate information and instructions about the asset between the systems of each participant in the workflow. In practice, it is the information about the asset that will be used to determine how that asset is categorized or displayed to the end user.
Of course, metadata is not specific to dresses or retail; metadata is built into the framework of our libraries, stores, web sites, sciences and medicine. The uniting principal in all of these systems is the existence of a standard. Each workflow participant has to agree to the standard format for conveying and retrieving information. This is to say that both the method (spreadsheet, .xml, web site, etc) and format (no dress ‘prices’ in the ‘sizes’ field) have to be established prior to all parties sharing information. Just about every industry utilizes some form of metadata.
Metadata is particularly important to the digital delivery industry. It is the central component by which we push content from creator, to publisher, to distributor to consumer. By agreeing to a standard method of metadata communication we can deliver content much more efficiently than if we had to describe the same attributes one at a time. Metadata, therefor, is a necessary component of the ongoing digital revolution.
Learn More About Metadata:
- Ned Batchelder’s Succinct and Informative Explanation
- Metadata in (mostly) Layman’s Terms
- Hurst Associates Blog
- Tech Terms Definition
- In depth examination of metadata (includes references and samples)
- Wikipedia Definition
Metadata Specifications and Standards: