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What is a Data Catalog? Features, Best Practices, and Benefits

Junaid Baig

SEO Marketer

April 17th, 2024

What is a Data Catalog?

A data catalog is a central inventory of organizational data. It provides a comprehensive view of all data assets in an organization, including databases, datasets, files, and data pipelines.

They enable organizations to efficiently manage data by facilitating discovery, lineage tracking, and governance enforcement.

Establishing a data catalog is part of a broader data governance framework and includes:

  • creating a business glossary,
  • increasing data literacy across the company and
  • data classification.

They are usually created after a company has defined its data, labeled it, identified the relevant stakeholders responsible for data security, and assigned them access roles.

Data Catalog vs. Data Dictionary

A common confusion arises when data dictionaries come into the discussion. Both data catalog and data dictionary serve essential roles in data management. The former emphasizes discovery and exploration, while the latter focuses on defining and describing data elements in detail.

While a data catalog serves as a centralized inventory of metadata, a data dictionary focuses on defining data elements and attributes, describing their meaning, format, and usage.

The former offers a comprehensive view of an organization’s data assets. It enables data discovery and exploration by enabling users to easily search and explore available data assets. Additionally, data catalogs include features such as data lineage tracking and governance capabilities that help with data quality management and compliance.

On the other hand, a data dictionary typically provides technical metadata and is commonly used as a reference for data modeling and database design.

Benefits of a Data Catalog

Benefits of a using a data catalog

How does a data catalog benefit an organization? Are the benefits just limited to data analysts? 

Not really! Once implemented correctly, the benefits of a data catalog extend throughout the organization, including: 

  1. Improved Data Accessibility: With a catalog of data, users can easily find and access relevant data assets for analysis and decision-making. The greater accessibility not only streamlines access to data but also and also enhances productivity. 
  2. Enhanced Data Trust: Trusted data is important for effective decision-making. Acting as a repository for metadata, data catalogs facilitate metadata management and data lineage tracking. This increased transparency allows users to easily understand the meaning, origin, and quality of the data theyre working with. So, the transparency helps identify potential errors and inconsistencies, leading to more trustworthy and reliable data. 
  3. Data Governance Enforcement: They also act as a platform for enforcing data governance policies, monitoring data usage, and ensuring regulatory compliance, all while promoting data discoverability and fostering a data-driven culture.
  4. Increased Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing: They improve collaboration and communication among data stakeholders by providing a platform for sharing knowledge and documenting data assets.
  5. Reduced Data Redundancy and Duplication: After collecting data, catalogs help organizations identify and eliminate redundant or duplicate data assets and reduce storage costs.

What Does a Data Catalog Include?

types of data in a data catalog

Naturally, the next questions usually are how a data catalog works and what it’s made of? First, let’s look at what information it contains. A data catalog consists of various types of metadata, including:

Key Components

  1. Operational metadata: This is also known as process metadata. It includes information about the execution of processes and workflows within the system. Operational metadata often includes timestamps, execution logs, transaction IDs, resource usage metrics, and system configuration settings. It provides a lineage of data to allow analysts to track a data asset’s recency and relevancy.
  2. Technical metadata: Also called structural metadata, this data type outlines how data is organized in a system. It includes details like the format, structure, and characteristics of data elements, like data types, field lengths, formats, keys, indexes, relationships, and storage locations. This metadata is essential for understanding whether data manipulation is necessary before analysis.
  3. Business metadata: Business metadata provides business context and meaning to data assets, such as their suitability for a task and overall value. It typically includes data definitions, business rules, data ownership, usage policies, and business glossary terms.

How Does a Data Catalog Work?

A data catalog works by collecting, organizing, and providing access to metadata about an organization’s data assets. Here’s how it typically operates:

  1. Data Ingestion: Metadata from various sources, such as databases, data warehouses, data lakes, and files, is ingested into it.
  2. Metadata Organization: The extracted metadata is organized and stored within the catalog. This functionality includes data definitions, schema details, data lineage, and usage statistics.
  3. Data Discovery: Users can search and explore the repository to discover relevant data assets based on their metadata attributes, keywords, or tags. This feature allows users to find the data they need quickly and efficiently.
  4. Collaboration: Many catalogs offer features to support and foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. These features could be anything from annotations and comments to ratings and reviews.
  5. Data Lineage Tracking: It tracks the lineage of data, showing how it moves and transforms across different systems and processes. This capability provides insights into data provenance and helps users understand the origin and impact of the data.
  6. Data Governance: It provides mechanisms for defining and implementing governance rules that administrators can use to enforce data governance policies and controls, ensuring that data is managed and used in compliance with organizational policies and regulatory requirements.

How to Build a Data Catalog?

Steps on building a data catalog

Creating a catalog involves multiple important steps.

  1. Requirement Gathering: The first step is all about identifying the organization’s data management needs and objectives. Involving stakeholders from the outset simplifies the process of defining the requirements and understanding why the organization needs a centralized repository for data assets.
  2. Data Discovery: The next step is identifying and inventorying all data sources within the organization, including databases, data lakes, files, and applications, to understand the scope of the data catalog.
  3. Metadata Collection: Next, users harvest metadata from the identified data sources, including definitions, schema information, and data lineage. Metadata can also be collected via manual curation in cases where data is sensitive or complex.
  4. Metadata Standardization: Standardization and normalization of the collected metadata come next. It involves defining metadata standards, mappings, and taxonomies to harmonize metadata attributes. This step ensures consistency and compatibility across different data sources.
  5. Metadata Enrichment: This part involves enhancing metadata with additional contextual information, such as business glossary terms, data classifications, and data usage policies.
  6. Metadata Storage: Establishing a centralized repository where users can store, organize, and access the collected metadata.
  7. Data Catalog Population: Next, users populate the data catalog with standardized and enriched metadata.
  8. User Access and Governance: Administrators then implement data governance policies and define access controls and permissions to manage access rights and modify the data catalog.
  9. User Training and Adoption: Team leads also provide training and support to users to help them understand how to navigate and utilize the data catalog effectively for their data management and analytics tasks. Encourage user adoption through communication and outreach efforts.
  10. Continuous Maintenance and Updates: Data stewards regularly update and maintain the catalog. Ongoing metadata management, data profiling, and data quality assessment activities ensure the accuracy and relevance of the cataloged information.

Having an effective data governance strategy helps greatly in implementing these steps. Since a data catalog is part of a larger governance strategy, stakeholder buy-in, effective data collection, and literacy are needed to make these instruments work.

Challenges in Implementing a Data Catalog and How to Avoid Them

Common challenges in adopting a data catalog include:

  1. Data Silos: Data may be scattered across various systems and departments, leading to data silos that hinder the effectiveness of the data catalog.
  2. Data Quality Issues: Inaccurate, incomplete, or inconsistent metadata can undermine the usability and trustworthiness of the data catalog.
  3. User Adoption: Lack of awareness, training, or perceived value may result in low user adoption rates, limiting the impact of the data catalog on organizational data management practices.

Best Practices

To overcome these challenges, data leaders within companies can:

  1. Promote Effective Data Collection: Implement processes and technologies to effectively integrate data from disparate sources, breaking down data silos and providing a unified view of the organization’s data assets.
  2. Establish High Data Quality Standards: Define and enforce quality standards to ensure that metadata in the data catalog is accurate, complete, and consistent. Implement data profiling and cleansing techniques to proactively identify and address data quality issues.
  3. Provide User Training and Create a Data Culture: Offer comprehensive training programs, documentation, and create a data-driven culture to educate users about the benefits and capabilities of data governance measures. Highlight real use cases and success stories to demonstrate the value of the data catalog in improving data management and decision-making processes. Additionally, involve users in the design and development process to ensure that it meets their needs and preferences.

Challenges in implementing a data catalog and best practices to overcome them

Data Catalog Use Cases

Let’s look at some use cases across multiple industries:

Understanding an asset’s history and improved compliance

Compliance officers can rely on the organization’s data repository to ensure data integrity. Utilizing the data lineage feature, they gain invaluable insights into the origin, movement, and transformations of data across disparate systems and processes.

Officers can verify the accuracy and reliability of reports and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. They can also identify potential vulnerabilities, assess the impact of data breaches or system failures, and implement risk mitigation strategies effectively.

Empowering self-service analytics

In certain fast-paced sectors like healthcare, medical researchers, clinicians, and administrators require timely access to data for diagnosis and recommendations. Through a data catalog, they can quickly discover and access curated healthcare datasets, patient records, and clinical trial data. With intuitive search capabilities and detailed metadata provided by the data catalog, researchers can quickly find relevant data assets based on their research needs and objectives.

Improved collaboration

Usually, various teams, including marketing, sales, and finance, must collaborate on a campaign. Using data stored in a central location, members from different departments can access and share relevant customer data, transaction records, and demographic information in a single place.

As the project progresses, data scientists step in to analyze the shared datasets. They apply advanced analytics techniques to identify patterns and trends in customer behavior. They then work with the marketing and sales teams to develop targeted marketing campaigns and personalized promotions based on the insights derived from the data analysis.

Data monetization

A telecommunications company can use its catalog to identify customer usage data, including call records, data usage patterns, and location information. Once identified, the team can categorize the customer data into valuable datasets for monetization. By packaging and selling anonymized and aggregated customer data, the company provides valuable insights into consumer behavior, demographics, and mobility patterns.

Data Catalog Tools

Data catalog tools are essential in supporting and implementing a data governance strategy. Modern tools have extensive features while being very easy to setup and use. However, not all tools are equal, and deciding on one can be difficult.

So, a comprehensive software should offer the following key features:

  1. Metadata Collection and Management: This includes capabilities for harvesting metadata from various cloud and on-premises data sources, including databases, data lakes, files, and applications.
  2. Data Discovery: Intuitive search and browse functionalities to discover and explore data assets based on metadata attributes, keywords, business glossary, or tags.
  3. Data Lineage Tracking: It should be able to track the lineage of data, showing how data moves and transforms across different systems and processes.
  4. Data Governance Enforcement: The solution should have enforcement for data governance policies and controls, like data classification, access controls, and compliance regulations.
  5. AI- powered Automation: A robust tool can automate tasks ranging from data ingestion and metadata storage to business glossary creation using the power of AI. Analysts can also use AI to provide in-tool recommendations and auto-naming capabilities.
  6. Collaboration and Sharing: It should allow users to collaborate and share insights via a business glossary, documentation, ratings, and annotations about data assets.
  7. Robust Integration Capabilities: Integrating with other data management and analytics tools, such as data integration, visualization, and machine learning platforms. It should also support REST APIs for external connectivity.
  8. Security and Compliance: Built-in security features and compliance controls, including encryption, data masking, and audit logging.

Astera Data Governance

Astera – Data Catalog Tool with end-to-end Capabilities

If ‘you’re looking to invest in data governance, off-the-shelf tools like Astera help streamline the entire process.

Astera Data Governance provides a central platform for managing your company data assets without writing any code. Powered by AI, it has multiple features for streamlining the entire governance process. The AI-boosted features include:

  • Data discoverability,
  • Data enrichment,
  • Data Profiling, and a
  • Business glossary.

Astera Data Governance is part of Astera Data Stack, our end-to-end data management platform. It empowers business users to manage the entire data management project in a single tool, from ETL/ELT to data warehousing and analytics—all code-free. Combined with award-winning customer care, Astera is the preferred choice for companies investing in data governance.

Want to see how Astera can help you create a robust data governance strategy? Schedule a personalized demo.

Learn more about our data management and governance platform.

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