Enterprise Metadata – thoughts
The company I work for is about to embark on an Enterprise Metadata initiative. So I thought I’d write an introductory blog post on what metadata is, and how I think of metadata within the Enterprise. So here goes …
What is metadata?
So here’s the Wikipedia page on metadata. Blah, blah, blah. To me, saying metadata is “data about data” is about as about as useful as saying information is information about information. I mean, it’s a bit recursive don’t you think?
I view metadata as descriptive information about a “thing”, where the “thing” is anything that can be represented as a concept. Depending on the context, this “thing” could be a person, a topic, a piece of content, an ad, a real-world entity like a truck or a house, or even an abstract concept like “love” or “beauty”. Any piece of information, or “semantics”, describing the underlying entity can be viewed as metadata.
The descriptive information can be information about the thing itself (for example the name and address of a business), or the relational context of the thing (for example, as we will see below, related content or persons associated with that thing).
What is “enterprise” metadata?
Enterprise metadata, therefore, is descriptive information that describes the core concepts within an enterprise – customers, ads, content, business units, you name it – and the web of things that are related to it.
So how is metadata represented in information systems? Well, it can be represented in many ways. It can be represented as fields in a table (i.e. a relational database), as tags, as categories, or as Properties associated with an Object in code, or even associated with a variable baked into the code (bad, bad programming!). Metadata can be represented as “structured” data (as in a relational database or markup language), or “semi-structured” or “unstructured” data (as in a Word document).
Representing metadata as a Graph
However, the most powerful way of representing metadata that is highly-relational and subject to change is with a graph. Here, we don’t mean “graph” in the sense of a visual representation of data in Excel. But rather in the mathematical sense of the term, as a network of nodes and links (or edges). In social networking, this is how people are related together … in terms of a Social Graph.
With graph-based data representations, there’s essentially no difference between data and metadata. What is viewed as data from one perspective, can be viewed as metadata from another perspective. For more on this topic, see my previous posts here and here.
Listings Metadata – an example
With this introduction, let’s consider what metadata might be associated with a Business Listing. So traditionally, when one thinks of a Business Listing, one might think of something that looks like this:
In this example above, you would probably say that the metadata associated with this Listing is the name of the business, the location of the business, phone #, etc.
However, what if the content associated with a business listing was displayed on an entire page, like this:
Here we see the entire page is full of metadata – or associated content – about the business listing. We have the business listing itself, but we also have all sorts of additional information/content associated with the listing: comments, editorial reviews, a map showing where the business is located, perhaps pricing information about the business’ products, and even a video supplied by the proprietor. We may also have descriptive tags associated with the listing or business, as well as people who “subscribe” or “follow” the listing, and want to be notified of updates to the listing.
Now the listing is less the descriptive data associated with the physical image of the listing provided in the initial example, but more like a “concept”, with all sorts of associated content and metadata – some basic textual information, and a whack of related content and even the social context of community members who might be interested in the listing, or who have contributed content.
This “web of related content” associated with the listing can be represented as a “graph” (as discussed above), which forms a “web” of related objects of content associated with the listing.
In Summary …
And that is really how I view metadata. It’s the immediate information that describes or characterizes a “thing”. But it’s also the web of contextual information that is associated with the thing – related content, user-generated content, social context, and so forth.