What is Metadata—The Key to Unlocking the Value of Your Data Assets

January 5th, 2021

What is a data catalog? Image of catalogued books in a library

What is metadata?

Metadata is the key to unlocking the value of your data. 🔓

The easiest way to understand metadata or its meaning is that it is simply information or data about data. It’s a way to find out what your data means or represents. It typically contains a description of the data and provides important context.

“A set of data that describes and gives information about other data.”

- Definition of metadata according to Lexico

What meta itself means:

“Meta is a word which, like so many other things, we have the ancient Greeks to thank for. When they used it, meta meant “beyond,” “after,” or “behind.” The “beyond” sense of meta still lingers in words like metaphysics or meta-economy.”

Examples of metadata

To the naked eye, a rose is just a rose.

Red roses

Is a rose just a rose?

But to the more discerning meta eye, a rose is so much more. It’s the sum total of its meta.

Metadata of a rose

Unlocking the metadata of a rose

So, do only images have meta? Of course not. Everything in life has a metalevel.

Take the example of your favorite song—or top 100 songs in 2019.

Best songs of 2019

Every song has its own metadata. Image courtesy: Billboard.com

Each of these songs has some metadata associated with it—the name of the song, the genre, the name of the singer/creator. The format and size of the file. Year of creation… etc. You get the picture. The complete picture with metadata, right? (PS: The link above also has a Spotify link to the entire playlist. You’re welcome! 😎 )

Getting closer home to the humans of data, here’s an example of something that we use on a daily basis—the mighty Excel sheet.

While the data in an Excel sheet refers to the actual information (numbers or text) contained in rows X columns, the metadata refers to the description of the column. So you get a better context on the data itself. Like an explainer.

Exploring metadata via Atlan’s data dictionary

Exploring metadata via Atlan’s data dictionary

And even though it’s fairly obvious by now, let’s take a moment to understand…

Why is metadata so important?

Data is nothing but the sum total of its metadata. It is what helps us create a complete picture of our data and understand it in its entirety.

For instance, let’s say you’ve just launched a new ice cream flavor🍦and want to understand whether that flavor is selling more in cities or in rural areas. I’m guessing you would typically review an Excel sheet with the latest sales figures. 💰

Now, a meta-less version of this data would be utterly confusing as you wouldn’t be able to understand what the various columns meant. Now that's where the metadata catalog comes in.

Given that enterprises are increasingly investing in and betting on data to make better decisions, the amount of data we use is only set to increase. In order, to increase the shelf life and longevity of data, it’s important for companies to invest in managing their metadata as well.

The need of the hour is to remove data silos, let analytics flow at the speed of thought and create a single source of truth for your entire team, which brings us to an important point.

Types of metadata

Today, metadata is everywhere. Every component of the modern data stack and every user interaction on it generates metadata. Apart from traditional forms like technical metadata (e.g. schemas) and business metadata (e.g. taxonomy, glossary), our data systems now create entirely new forms of metadata.

Types of metadata

Image by: Atlan

What are the biggest challenges in metadata management?

One of the biggest problems facing businesses is that though they are aware of the value of metadata and have invested in managing it, they are yet to see enough ROI.

Sadly, companies have traditionally invested in more manual, ad-hoc processes to manage their situation. Departments would either share information, including metadata, verbally or by maintaining Excel/doc files to document data.

  • No one knows where the documents are located—missing information
  • No one bothers to update the documents, especially when people move on—outdated data
  • No one knows how data sets are related—and how to fix changing values across all of them—no data lineage or data quality checks
  • No way to maintain all revisions or versions of data
  • No way to keep metadata along with the data—leading to even more data silos and versions of the truth

That’s why simply plugging in an isolated metadata management tool or metadata catalog within your data lake may not be the answer to your data woes. Today’s business mandates that data be available for whoever needs it, wherever and whenever they need it—with all the context they need.

Finally, at the metalevel…

You need to implement a metadata management strategy that boosts your team’s productivity and agility, and puts data at your fingertips. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the meta!

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