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Metadata as a Road Sign

Originally published August 4, 2005

The classical definition of metadata is data about data. But that definition is so vague and general that it is almost meaningless. There are many other interpretations of metadata. One interpretation is that metadata can be used as a road sign.

In order to understand metadata as a road sign, consider that there are different types of users—operational and DSS analytical users.

Now consider metadata in the operational environment. In the operational environment the user repeats the same activity. Everyday the end-user executes the same transactions and processes. How useful is metadata to the operational end-user? In the first few days, the end-user actually needs metadata to perform the task. But after an end-user has done the same job a thousand times, the end-user no longer needs the metadata. Only if there is a change to the operational process will metadata be required again by the end-user.

Now consider the DSS analyst. The DSS analyst does something different every day. The corporation changes direction as business conditions change. One day the corporation is interested in market share. The next day the corporation is interested in profitability. The next day the corporation is interested in new product development. No two days are the same in the life of the DSS analyst. As the DSS analyst goes about doing his/her work, the DSS analyst is always using metadata. Metadata directs the end-user to what data is useful and what data is not. Because the challenge changes every day, metadata is useful every day.

In this sense metadata is like a road sign.  

Consider the person who moves to a new house. The first few mornings, the person uses road signs to find his/her way to work. But after the first week or so, the person doesn’t see the road signs. It is not that the person ignores the road signs; it is just that the person has memorized their way to work and no longer needs the road signs.

Now consider the tourist. The tourist lives in New Jersey and is traveling on a summer vacation out West. The person taking a vacation in the West needs road signs throughout the journey. This person needs road signs showing how to get from Taos to Santa Fe. This person needs road signs to show how to get from Sante Fe to Galisteo. Inside the city, road signs are needed to show how to get from Paseo Padre to Alameda, and then from Alameda to Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe. In fact, from the time the person leaves New Jersey until the person returns, the person needs road signs the entire way—inside cities, on the open road, everywhere.

Metadata, then, is like a road sign. To the operational user, metadata is useful only at the beginning of the operational user’s experience with the system. For the DSS user, metadata is useful for the entire DSS experience.

Thinking of metadata then as a road sign is another perspective of metadata, to be added with many other ways of looking at metadata.

Data about data is truly an inadequate description of metadata.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

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