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What Is Metadata and Why Is It Important?

Saba Jahangir

Content Strategist

May 17th, 2024

What is metadata?

Metadata refers to the information about data that gives it more context and relevance. It records essential aspects of the data (e.g., date, size, ownership, data type, or other data sources) to help users discover, identify, understand, organize, retrieve, and use it—transforming information into business-critical assets.

Think of it as labels on a box that describe what’s inside. Metadata makes it easier to find and utilize the data that you need. Typical metadata elements include:

  • Content details: Title, description, tags, and categories
  • Ownership/access information: Creator, creation date, modifier, and access controls

What are some examples of metadata?

Let’s take a look at an example for a better understanding:

Metadata of a spreadsheet file:

Metadata of a spreadsheet file. Image by Astera. 

Metadata of a spreadsheet file. Image by Astera.

Spreadsheets contain various types of metadata, including column headers and the number of rows and columns. In the above example, the table row, column headers, and the comment by Saba are examples of metadata, as they provide context to the data in the following rows. This type of metadata facilitates working with the present data.

Other metadata elements in a spreadsheet include source descriptions, relationships between tables, data validation rules, data types, column statistics (missing values, minimum or maximum values, distribution), data ownership information, creation date, comments, and update history.

Other examples: 

In addition to a spreadsheet, metadata facilitates the organization and categorization of a wide range of digital assets, including images, webpages, computer files, documents, geographic information system (GIS) files, relational databases, graph databases, emails, application code, multimedia content (videos), and audio recordings.

Why is metadata important more than ever today? 

Metadata management goes beyond describing the content. It helps make crucial information searchable and discoverable — widely adopted today for organizational and efficient data management purposes. To name a few, it:

Improves data organization

Metadata handles massive volumes of data through categorization. The descriptive, technical, and structural details about your data serve as the foundation to label, categorize, locate, and retrieve the data, saving time and effort—thereby enhancing productivity.

Enhances data management

It provides insights into data lineage (its date of origin and the transformations it underwent), who can access it, and how it interrelates with other data. This helps evade data inconsistencies or errors, improving data quality and subsequently enhancing business processes.

Augments decision-making capabilities

The increasing data complexity makes analyzing vast volumes of data challenging and unrealistic. Metadata contextualizes and adds more structure to this data, enabling better understanding. Additionally, when powered with AI and machine learning algorithms, the process of anomaly detection and correction, tagging, and categorizing automates, improving data discoverability and data accuracy, enabling informed decisions.   

Assists in compliance and security

When it comes to data storage, usage, and retention, especially PII, every business must adhere to the outlined compliance regulations (e.g. HIPAA) irrespective of the industry. Metadata facilitates this by providing information on data owner or creator(s) and lineage, aiding in keeping track of the document lifecycle. Additionally, metadata such as access levels, encryption, and audit trails ensure data integrity and confidentiality.

In addition, metadata supports efficient data integration and smooth data migration, along with enabling collaboration and fostering affiliations among enterprise systems like ERP and CRM. Moreover, it is a powerful tool for modern content discovery and elevated customer experience. It allows potential buyers to find relevant titles through quick search and browsing. Clear metadata helps customers understand product details and make informed purchasing decisions.

The role of metadata in data management

Metadata provides a wealth of information about your data assets to unlock their true value.

Image by Astera.

Image by Astera.

Here’s how it effectively manages your data across dimensions:

  • Supplementary context: Metadata adds a layer of explanation to your data stored in databases or systems. It details the source of the data’s origin (where it came from), its format (how it’s structured, e.g., numbers or text), and any transformations it’s been through (such as calculations or adjustments). This additional context allows users to interpret the data accurately and choose the most appropriate techniques to extract reliable insights.
  • Search and filter: Metadata facilitates internal text-based search functionalities within databases. Descriptive attributes within the metadata, such as keywords, titles, and summaries, provide a context within search results and enable users to quickly locate relevant datasets through internal search tools. Additionally, metadata allows filtering and sorting search results based on specific criteria, saving time and effort otherwise spent sifting through irrelevant data.
  • Logical structure: Metadata streamlines how your data is organized. It defines the connections between data elements, dependencies on each other, and their hierarchy within the larger dataset. This detailed breakdown allows for a logical and well-organized data structure, which makes storing, retrieving, and integrating different datasets more efficient.
Illustration of how metadata establishes key data relationships. Image by Astera.

Illustration of how metadata establishes key data relationships. Image by Astera.

  • Lineage tracking: Metadata allows tracking the origin and transformations a dataset within a database undergoes throughout its lifecycle. A documented history with lineage allows users to assess the validity and reliability of data, ensuring they’re working with accurate information for informed decision-making.
  • Data quality checks: Embedded within metadata can be information on data quality checks and validation processes performed on the data stored in the databases. By offering more visibility into the data lifecycle, metadata enables users to evaluate the accuracy and completeness of a data set before utilizing it for analysis.
  • Access control: Metadata facilitates the management of access permissions for database data by providing information about user roles, data sensitivity levels, and other attributes relevant to access control. For instance, a database administrator might set a rule that only users with the “manager” role can access data marked “confidential” in the metadata. By specifying user roles and authorization levels, metadata helps ensure that only authorized personnel can access sensitive or confidential data, enforcing accountability and data security.
  • Clear access instructions: Once a relevant data set is located, metadata details the access methods, including authentication and authorization requirements. With clear access instructions, users can obtain the data they need for analysis without any confusion, streamlining the data retrieval process. 
  • Standardized sharing: It allows the creation of consistent data formats across various datasets in your database system. By providing a standardized format, metadata facilitates seamless data sharing between teams, departments, and organizations, fostering collaboration, data discovery, research, and knowledge-sharing practices.
  • Reduced reliance on data teams: With readily available and well-documented data (thanks to metadata), users can independently locate and understand the data they need from the system. Consequently, reduced workload empowers data teams to focus on more complex tasks.
  • Data interoperability: Metadata facilitates interoperability among various systems within your tech stack by establishing a common language. It defines data formats, models, and exchange protocols to ensure harmonization and seamless exchange between databases.
  • Audit trails and accountability: As discussed earlier, metadata tracks who accessed or modified specific datasets within databases. This creates a detailed activity record, enabling organizations to identify responsible parties, prevent unauthorized changes, and minimize data breaches. In version control, it facilitates rollback procedures in case of errors, ensuring data integrity.
  • Streamlined compliance: Metadata serves as the translator, enabling consistent data-handling practices across various systems. It allows adherence to corporate policies and regulatory requirements, regardless of where the data resides, and minimizes errors and inconsistencies that could lead to compliance issues.
Role of metadata in data management. Image by Astera. 

Role of metadata in data management. Image by Astera.

Types of metadata

Based on the functionalities it serves when it comes to information management, metadata is categorized into various types, some of which are:

Descriptive metadata

Descriptive metadata encompasses essential details about the data resource (what, when, where, and who) encompassing its content, context, and characteristics. It includes title, author name, keyword, summary, publication date, category, and physical characteristics (for physical media).

Function: It helps users discover relevant data quickly and facilitates version control within document management systems.

Structural metadata

Structure metadata is the internal organization of a data source. It specifies hierarchical relationships between components, enabling efficient data exploration and analysis.

Function: It allows users to efficiently navigate through complex data structures and improve data usability and user understanding through enhanced data presentation (e.g., website navigation menu, slide numbers in a presentation, and parent-child relationships in databases).

Administrative metadata

Administrative metadata provides crucial information to help manage or control a data resource—i.e., insights into who owns a data resource, how users can access it, and how users manage it. This type of metadata is often automatically created upon content entry in a content management system (CMS) and plays a pivotal role in data management, navigation, delivery, and retrieval within CMS.

It includes details like data’s creation date, author, ID number, encode or media type, access permissions, retention period, and copyright or usage rights. This type of metadata is instrumental in maintaining data integrity and compliance across sectors.

Function: It helps manage data governance and security, ensuring data is accessed, stored, and used appropriately, following regulations for data retention.

These three metadata types are often connected and work together. Here’s an example of how they interrelate with each other.

Interrelation between Descriptive, Structural, and Administrative metadata. Image by Astera.  

Interrelation between Descriptive, Structural, and Administrative metadata. Image by Astera.

Technical metadata

This metadata type provides information about the technical characteristics of digital resources. It describes the rules and structure for storing data, including data models and backup protocols. It includes elements like file size, format (e.g., PDF, JPEG, MP4), character encoding (e.g., UTF-8, ASCII), compression methods, data lineage, security settings, software used to create it, and hardware or device details.

Examples: Data transformation rules, schema, field names, indexing details, row or column count, data source information, data types, data relationships, and access control.

Table schema - Example of technical metadata. Image by Astera. 

Table schema – Example of technical metadata. Image by Astera.

Function: Technical metadata maximizes data interoperability, identifies data inconsistencies, provides visibility into data lineage (origin and transformations), streamlines data integration by capturing data source information, enhances searchability and retrieval of digital assets, aids in data preservation and proper archiving, and enables seamless navigation and data analysis.

Active metadata vs. passive metadata

Active metadata is dynamic. It is an always-on, API-driven process that integrates with your data stack tools, collects metadata from them, creates intelligence, and drives action without human intervention. In short, it describes the data, adds context to it, and can alter based on interactions.

For instance, active metadata identifies the most frequently used datasets from historical usage records and recommends an optimized schedule for data pipeline execution. However, it doesn’t stop here. Beyond just suggestions, it autonomously adjusts the data pipeline through direct integration, thus advancing a fully DataOps centric approach.

Passive metadata, on the other hand, is a traditional, more static process. It describes the data, is manually created by humans, and doesn’t alter its behavior based on events. Examples include tags, data descriptions, data types, and data sources. Here’s a visual depiction of passive and active metadata and how the former paves the way for the latter.

Active metadata vs. passive metadata

Active metadata vs. passive metadata. Source: Gartner

Best to use metadata effectively

Here are some of the best practices to guide you in effectively utilizing your metadata:

  1. Know your whys: Define the purpose of your metadata. Identify the business value of your captured metadata and how it supports your systems, processes, and organization.
  2. Design a custom schema: Create a structured framework (schema) to categorize and organize your assets based on your specific needs.
  3. Make it discoverable: Plan for easy content discovery and access. Explain who are the intended users and what tools and methods they will use to find and utilize the metadata.
  4. Focus on value, not volume: Select and describe every piece of metadata you collect. Only include properties that directly connect with your goals and purpose.
  5.  Simplify for better usage: Keep your metadata simple and straightforward to encourage users to contribute essential information. Avoid using excessive fields and prioritize essential properties.  For instance, when adding metadata for an image, fields like title, description, and tags are crucial for categorization.  Additionally, remove irrelevant pre-populated default properties to create a cleaner interface.
  6. Ensure it aligns with business goals: Develop a governance plan. This includes establishing clear roles and responsibilities, data quality management, and policies for managing metadata, ensuring consistency and compliance in metadata elements. In addition, identify sources and characteristics of your metadata to effectively adapt your governance plans in response to evolving needs.

    Learn more about metadata governance best practices.

Final Words

Effectively managing data within your organization is crucial to drive data-driven decisions. While data holds immense value, fully utilizing it requires context, which is why metadata is crucial. By providing a deeper understanding of your data’s characteristics, lineage, and location within the databases, metadata empowers efficient data discovery, ensures quality and compliance, and simplifies long-term preservation.

Astera takes data management a step further by leveraging a metadata-driven data architecture and AI-powered ETL processes. Through automated metadata management, data visualization, and data lineage insights, Astera ensures your data remains consistently compliant and relevant — enabling informed data-driven decisions. Get in touch with our experts to see how our solution aligns with your data needs or schedule a personalized demo and see it in action!

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