Episode 4 - Ubiquity of Metadata

Hello and welcome. Thank you for joining the podcast all about metadata. Today I wanted to run through a laundry list of places where you will find metadata in use today. It is by no means an exhaustive list because at that point I would have to name just about every system (technological or not) on the planet today. But I do think I have a chance at mentioning a place or two where metadata is used in your daily life that maybe you hadn’t thought of. Of course, if metadata IS your daily life, then maybe you have.

Metadata is everywhere

So, as I alluded, metadata is everywhere. It is happening every day, in every organization, in every digital transaction that is taking place, and not just commercial transactions, but just interactions happening via email, clicks on webpages or in apps,

Electronic Metadata

  • Email –

    • Constantly used in litigation to prove cases. In fact, if you work for a very large company, they may have policies in place to delete emails after a certain period of time. This is part of a legal practice called defensible disposal, much talked of in the practice of records management. But the metadata in an email will tell prosecutors who was involved in an email transaction, who said what, when it was sent, where it was sent from. Metadata in email has brought down some fairly powerful people. 

  • Maps/ Locations

    • Big love for metadata has strong origins in geotagging. Maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) done a lot for raising the profile of metadata in our digital world. In fact Geospatial Metadata is SO important that there is an entire federal committee dedicated to it! Aptly named the Federal Geographic Data Committee. They note that “metadata allows for the documentation, discovery, assessment, integration, distribution, and archival of geospatial resources.” I particularly love this example because it really represents to me, given how accessible and ubiquitous map data is, the power of  a good, shared, universal metadata standard.

      • Geotagging images and videos

      • Tracking your friends on Google Maps or FMF

      • Finding new restaurants in your area

  • Images

    • Location metadata

    • Time/date metadata

    • Oh, the descriptive metadata (Essentially unfindable without descriptive)

  • Documents and Records

    • Properties in day to day office documents

    • Anything relating to active documents management

      • Check in/ Out for editing protection purposes

      • Version control

      • Comments and shared editing

      • Markup of the document – if used! All those Heading 1, Heading 2 styles are more than just a change in the size and color of your text, but they also provide metadata behind the scenes to tell a computer reading you page what is important heading material and what is not. That’s why I always write a paper, especially if I am going to PDF it and post it into the world, but also, always, using headings instead of just bolding and resizing text to make it look like a header. Actually using the headers as defined in your Word application is going to add more semantic information to your document than is making the words bigger and bold.

    • Records management

      • Dates for archiving 

      • Dates for destruction

      • Should be kept FOREVER

  • Web Pages

    • Navigation and search experience

    • Accessibility

    • Usability

  • Video

    • Getting SO fun, but a long way to go for most non-broadcast companies

    • Talent in the video – who are the actors?

    • Information about the contents of the video – again, would become lost without descriptive

    • Run time so folks know what they’re getting themselves into

    • What it was filmed in and size information affects what it can be played on effectively

  • Audio

    • Track name, album – What is it?

    • Artist, composer – Critical intellectual property details

    • Genre – critical for classifying the music for listener interest

    • BMP – As a listener, am I going to try to get pumped for a workout by this music, or is it going to go on my afternoon study playlist which is a bit slower (my partner actually studies to fast-paced music so I realize this is no ubiquitous)

  • Online activity

    • Who logged into a computer and from where. What did they do on that computer? What do they have stored on it? What searches did they perform on search engines? As a raving fan of true crime, I can tell you that this information is used in forensic and criminal investigations regularly in this day and age.

  • Data!

    • Everything I have mentioned is often, for the purposes of the definition of metadata, defined as data, but in this case I am differentiating data elements in a database from things like a digital image or a digital video.

    • Understand significance of rows and columns

    • Data dictionaries become possible

  • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

    • Don’t get me started. Never let someone tell you that AI/ML is going to make librarians obsolete. It is simply untrue.

    • ML does all its learning from good, clean data, and how do we get good clean data? You guessed it, use of good metadata and control.

  • Cell Phone Usage

    • Pinging off of cellphone towers when using internet, phone or text (also often used in litigation/ criminal investigation)

    • Text activity – to and from whom, even if the text is deleted


For Physical Items

  • Archival materials

    • Often just collected papers or boxes full of personal items. Positively require context. There are many principles of archival practice to create and protect this context.

    • Archival description. Box level? Folder level.

    • Finding aids

  • Books and other materials in a library

    • Lots of information to help you find books

    • Formerly Dewey Decimal System, now LOC subject headings

    • Formerly the card catalog, now the online catalog

  • Video and Audio

    • Aside from the fact that you will indeed find physical video and audio tapes in archives along with multifarious other archival materials, I wanted to call out these media specifically simply because they are at this point obsolete formats. That is, very little content is being produced on them anymore, and just oodles of good historical content, I dare say, is going to be lost when these formats degrade, which they will rather quickly. Without close attention to the state of decay, storage specifications, handling procedures, and access restrictions, even those that are presently being preserved in an archive would be in grave danger. This quickly turned into a PSA on video and audio preservation, but seriously, if you have old home movies sitting on VHS in your garage or your parents’ garage, get those things digitized before it is too late!

  • Consumer products

    • SO MUCH METADATA happens in the life of a consumer product. Like, it’s insane. Like, the amount of people and companies that are involved in the production and sale of, say, one bag of candy… It’s wild.

      • First, there’s the company who owns the recipe and the brand of the candy. They need to source suppliers for the ingredients of the candy, and then have the ingredients shipped to their factory and combined and the candy made. There’s loads of metadata associated with sourcing, packaging and shipping ingredients.

      • Then they need to design and create their packaging for their candy. They need designers (internal or external agency) and then the sourcing, printing and shipping of their packaging to the factory where the candy has been made and is ready for packaging. Again, there is a lot of metadata involved in keeping track of important details, like having the right, candy name, brand, ingredients, allergens list and bar code on the package (to name a few, this doesn’t even mention seasonal marketing)

      • And then once they have packaged candy, they need to get it out to their distributors. Who puts the candy on their shelves, how does it get to them? How much are they ordering?

  • Items in the grocery store

    • Everything I just mentioned about consumer products is true, and then the grocery store itself needs to keep track of how much inventory it buys, when that inventory expires, how much was lost to breakage or theft? What isle and shelf does it go on? What is the price? Is there a sale – is the sale part of a national or seasonal campaign?

  • Financial information

    • A lot of the details I just named are related to the financial accounting of the store, tracking inventory and naming profits and losses. The way that this information in tracked today, and the use of that data over time to track trends, it’s all aggregated and organized with metadata. I’m not saying that there are necessarily any new ways of performing the accounting tasks associated with these P&L tools, I’m saying that there is now a name for how we organize, store, and then search for it in a digital environment, and it’s all built off of the metadata around those data elements.

  • Architectural Information

    • Oodles of information goes into building something. There is the process of finding land to build on, and all of the forms and legal documentation that goes into the purchase of that land, getting permits to build on it, understanding the zoning and building within city zoning laws. And then there is the actual building of a structure itself. Blueprints are not static documents that don’t change, they get marked up and passed back and forth during the construction process. And then there are the floorplans once the building is constructed and needs to be polished and furnished. Much of this stuff is created digitally today in CAD software which allows for a lot of documentation details.

And lastly, like, literally everything. The very flora and fauna of our world are classified and indexed according to their relationship to one another. I would love to hear a rebuttal about the ubiquity of metadata in the world today.


Reading Recommendations

  1. I wanted to recommend a lovely book that I discovered recently and have on my reading list. So no, I haven’t read every book that I recommend here every time. But you’ll have to agree that this sounds amazing. It is called The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright and it is a look into the history of the use of Latin names for scientific naming of the world’s life. I just think it sounds like so much fun. Maybe we can book club it J



Please email me at inevermetadata@gmail.com and let me know what interests or confounds you the most and I will absolutely add it to my queue of topics. You can also use this email to contact me for whatever reason – corrections, questions, etc.

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