Metadata for dummies

by | Aug 21, 2012

If you’re like me, the word “metadata” triggers a mental off switch – anything associated with this word requires excessive effort to understand so I stop listening. As my attention span began to rival that of a goldfish, a personal mission to define the meaning of the word was required.
In layman’s terms metadata is data about data. It is its own entity, independent of the physical data it describes. It answers the hard questions – who, what, where, when, how, why.
Examples of metadata are everywhere. If the library was once your haunt of choice, early metadata could be found in the form of catalogue cards. Each card displayed a book’s title (what), author (who), date published (when), plot synopsis (why), and dewey decimal number (where). These cards weren’t physically linked in any way to the book they described but provided the browser with the information to understand and locate it if required.
We all use metadata on a daily basis – iTunes organises our music, IMDB makes movie watching an informed choice, the properties of a photograph tell a story before you’ve even seen the picture. Business metadata answers questions like, “This report shows revenue; what kind of revenue? What is meant by revenue? What calculations went into the determination of revenue?”.
Getting a bit technical, metadata can be split 3 ways – Structural metadata describes the containers of data; Descriptive metadata describes data content; Administrative metadata describes data management – all seen in the ‘Get info’ selection of the iTunes file below:

So go figure, metadata is what I’ve been after all along – the way of interpreting all those horrible ambiguous data warehouse tables. Hopefully writing this has reset my unconscious to absorb, rather than ignore, at the mention of the word.
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  1. cyprian

    thanks Kathryn this was a great simple explanation with a good concrete example thanks for taking the time to write it

  2. Arijit Ganguly

    Well explained. Appreciated. The “Metadata” my friend, is blowing in the wind. It’s everywhere. 🙂

  3. carol

    Love it! Thanks for breaking this down.

  4. Shiva C.

    Loved it. Hope to see more such blogs coming from you.

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