Hillmann's Real Metadata imageBob Warfield offers an interesting commentary in a recent post to the SmoothSpan blog, which aligns nicely with some thoughts that Dan Grigorovici kicked off in my head with his 4 January post to Jupiter‘s Web3Beat.

Almost tangential to the main thrust of Warfield’s post, he writes;

“There are two ways the SaaS world tackles [the problem of making enterprise software applications flexible]–for some problems metadata is the answer, and for other problems end user-approachable self-service customization works.  Let me give some examples of each.

Metadata is literally ‘data about data‘.  As such, it is a beautiful thing.  Let’s consider the database.  It is very common for different organizations to want to be able to customize the database to their own purposes.  Let’s say you have a record that keeps information about your customers.  A lot of this information will be common, and could be standardized.  We all want the customer’s name, their address, phone number, and perhaps a few other things.  But then there will also be a lot of things that differ from one organization to the next.  Perhaps one wants to assign a specific sales person to each customer.  Another wants to record that customer’s birthday (obviously this is a much smaller organization than the first!).  And so on.  Without metadata, each database has to be customized and changed.  With metadata, rather than changing each database, you build the idea of custom fields in, and then you can just tell the database what the custom fields will be in each case but the structure needn’t change.  Metadata is not unique to SaaS, but it is an important part of the ‘multitenant’ concept.  It makes it possible for all those tenants to live in the same database, but still get to have all their custom fields.

Metadata can also make it possible to enable that second method for flexibility.  Customizing a database without metadata is going to require someone to get into the database, modify the schema, make sure reports are modified to deal with the new schema, make sure the schema changes don’t break the product, and on and on.  Such work is definitely the province of expensive and highly technical experts.  However, once we have metadata, we can create a simple user interface that lets almost anyone add new fields, and that handles all the rest of it automatically.  Suddenly we have made what had been a difficult and expensive technical task approachable in a self-service way by non-technical customers.  Not only that, but they can make these changes quickly and easily, and they can even iterate on them until they get it just right.”

‘Metadata’, eh? I remember the times I spent, back in the Nineties, travelling a world that seemed in thrall to massively over-complicated taxonomies, cataloguing rules and data structures, evangelising the benefits of a more light-weight approach to the description of resources. The assertion that metadata was ‘data about data’ appeared in just about every presentation, closely followed (when talking to librarians, at least) by ‘it is sort of like cataloguing.’

Enter Grigorovici, and his discussion of an old post by Glenn McDonald. As Dan notes, Glenn doesn’t seem particularly keen on ‘metadata;’

“There is no such thing as ‘metadata’. Everything is relative. Everything is data. Every bit of data is meta to everything else, and thus to nothing. It doesn’t matter whether the map ‘is’ the terrain, it just matters that you know you’re talking about maps when you’re talking about maps. (And it usually doesn’t matter if the computer knows the difference, regardless…)”

So, two views of metadata that are apparently contradictory. Yet I pretty much agree with both of them, actually.

Returning to the Nineties, and the rather ridiculous pinnacle of my Gold status with a plethora of the world’s airlines, the “metadata is ‘data about data'” truism was often closely followed by “one person’s data is another person’s metadata” (or vice versa, of course).

shades-of-greyHere, as elsewhere, there can be a depressing tendency to seek polarisation; to make things simple by declaring everything either black or white. Grey is anathema, and to be hunted down for exposure to ridicule almost as biting as that directed at proponents of the pole opposite to your own. The reality is, of course, that grey is frequently the norm. The world is a complex place, and one in which a spectrum of views and ‘truths’ is necessary in helping us to make sense of the confusion that bombards all of our senses throughout every waking moment.

An overly dogmatic attempt to categorise some things as always being metadata and others as always data is pointless. Whilst Glenn forcefully argues that there is therefore no such thing as metadata, I would push back just as forcefully to say that any data can be considered metadata; in the right context.

That detailed and structured description of the new car after which you lust is a perfectly valid set of data. In a different context, and perhaps as a surrogate for the car itself, it can more usefully by characterised as metadata.

A database of flight codes, routes, times and aircraft is rich with data just begging to be used in a plethora of ways, whilst ‘BA283’ is equally comfortable as a piece of metadata describing one airline’s afternoon flight from London to Los Angeles.

The concept of metadata can be an extremely useful one; so long as we avoid becoming too dogmatic in defining its boundaries or fervid in upholding spurious conceptual purity.

Hillmann’s Real Metadata © Jeffrey Beall 2007, and shared on Flickr under Creative Commons License.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]