February 23, 2014

Confusion about metadata

A couple of points that arise frequently in conversation, but that I don’t seem to have made clearly online.

“Metadata” is generally defined as “data about data”. That’s basically correct, but it’s easy to forget how many different kinds of metadata there are. My list of metadata kinds starts with:

What’s worse, the past year’s most famous example of “metadata”, telephone call metadata, is misnamed. This so-called metadata, much loved by the NSA (National Security Agency), is just data, e.g. in the format of a CDR (Call Detail Record). Calling it metadata implies that it describes other data — the actual contents of the phone calls — that the NSA strenuously asserts don’t actually exist.

And finally, the first bullet point above has a counter-intuitive consequence — all common terminology notwithstanding, relational data is less structured than document data. Reasons include:

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5 Responses to “Confusion about metadata”

  1. Yves de Montcheuil on February 23rd, 2014 12:48 pm

    Thanks Curt for this simple and straightforward explanation. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one cringing when hearing about the NSA’s “metadata”. Even Jack Bauer’s CTU, with their often stretched tech concepts, weren’t making this kind of mistakes…

  2. Vincent McBurney on February 24th, 2014 9:49 pm

    I would label a Call Detail Record event data and not metadata. I think they call it metadata to try and downplay what they are doing. In Information Management circles you throw around the term metadata if you want everyone in the room to go to sleep. If they referred to it as Personal Private Information instead of metadata there would have been a few more headlines.

  3. What metadata means in modern PDM/PLM systems on February 25th, 2014 8:26 pm

    […] article Confusion about Metadata speaks about some additional aspects of metadata management that getting more relevant these days. […]

  4. What metadata means in modern PDM/PLM systems | Daily PLM Think Tank Blog on February 25th, 2014 8:28 pm

    […] article Confusion about Metadata speaks about some additional aspects of metadata management that getting more relevant these days. […]

  5. Misconceptions about privacy and surveillance | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 15th, 2014 1:08 pm

    […] February, 2014 post on various metadata-related confusions notes some egregious governmental spin. Categories: Health care, Predictive modeling and […]

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