Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mind your metadata (or, tagging an interest)

Getting a handle on the glut of information is something we all face on a daily basis whether on a personal or corporate level. Anything that can help us organise and find the content we need when we need it is most welcome. Over the years many tools, techniques and systems have been developed to help us do just that. From librarians managing large content collections and  information architects designing new websites to individuals trying to bring some order to their personal collections, the challenges are the same.
It’s generally agreed that ‘metadata’ (a description of the content or resource you’re trying to manage) can help and there’s no shortage of advice available. This is a big topic and there are plenty of resources available if you’d like to explore further. Just type the term ‘metadata’ into your favourite search engine and you’ll soon be awash with plenty of reading and learning material!
However, details aside, there are some very quick wins to be gained by using just a little metadata to describe your resources. By resources I’m thinking of documents, photographs, media clips, browser bookmarks and any other files you can think of. A little bit of descriptive data can be added to all of these making organising and finding them again easier.
Taking control
Metadata – as a concept or technique for describing and organising content – is actually part of a wider suite of organising tools well known to information specialists. Other,  well established, examples include:
  • Taxonomies
  • Ontologies
  • Controlled vocabularies
  • Thesauri
  • Facet analysis and other classification schemes
Inspired by the rapid growth of the internet, and the creation of shared information ‘spaces, these have recently been joined by some newer (more sociable?) cousins, for example folksonomies and tagging.
Very briefly, tagging is simply a quick and easy way of adding a term or keyword’ (or several) to a resource to categorise it and increase its findability. The main difference between a tag (in this sense) and the established approaches listed above, is that a tag allows you the freedom to chose whatever term you like (you can even make one up on the spot), but if your organisation uses a corporate taxonomy or controlled vocabulary, you’ll have to choose your term from a restricted list or some kind of ‘authority file’.
You may have already noticed that this blogging platform uses tags to label posts based upon their content, so you already get the general idea.
Metadata (tag it; find it)
In his book, Tagging: People Powered Metadata for the Social Web, Gene Smith defines metadata as “documentation for your data”. I recently wrote a review of this book on the Amazon UK website and thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to explore the whole issue of tagging both from a user (customer) and a provider (business) perspective.
I like tags because:
  • They’re quick to implement.
  • They’re easy to use.
  • They’re even easier to understand.
  • They’re very flexible.
  • They can be used by anyone.
  • They can be as general or specific as required.
  • They can be personal (it means something specific to the user).
  • They can be social (a currently ‘trending’ topic).
Some purists don’t like this whole ‘folksonomic’ approach and feel that only professionally qualified and suitably experienced specialists should ever attempt such noble goals as attempting to bring order to content chaos. Me? Well, as a professionally qualified and suitably experienced specialist I’ve never had a strong commitment to purity and – depending on the circumstance – will go with anything that works!
Okay, here’s the point of all of this. By adding a few well chosen terms to documents and other media, you greatly increase the chances of finding them again in the future. You also inadvertently contribute to a classification scheme which enhances browsing and discovery by category. There are many good examples of systems that use tagging very successfully. Delicious (which I’ve briefly mentioned in a previous blog post) is a social bookmarking platform which uses tags (see a tag cloud here) to categorise bookmarks. Although it’s a relatively simple system to use, it’s very flexible and powerful. Tags can be combined to filter out unwanted results and drill down to more relevant ones. LibraryThing allows what it calls ‘tagmashing’ to filter out unwanted results using symbols such as , to combine and – - to exclude tags from a search.
With a little care you can easily add value to your resources (and greatly increase their findability and usefulness) by adding just a little bit of metadata. In delicious for example there are many bookmarks that lack both a meaningful title and a short description. These are so easy to add though that it defies belief why anyone wouldn’t bother. So, when I come across a bookmark in delicious, if I can’t understand the title and there’s no description, I’m unlikely to bother to click on the link just to see what I get. The logic is simple isn’t it? If the person who created the bookmark couldn’t be bothered to give it a meaningful title or add a short description, it’s clearly not very important. So if they can’t be bothered; neither can I. The moral of this story? Add a meaningful title and a short description. You’ll be glad you did and maybe you’ll encourage other people to follow your good example!
Now, where’s that spreadsheet ..?
The same goes for documents and files stored on your local computer and on shared networks and file servers. By adding a small amount of metadata (your name, date of creation, short description and a few keywords) you greatly increase the value and usefulness of the resource. If those documents and files end up in a document management system, they’re going to be much easier to categorise and search.
Every time you add a little bit of descriptive information to your resources, you’re both helping to categorise them and increasing their ability to be found. And that can only be a good thing. Well, assuming you want it to be found!
As mentioned already, this is a big subject and volumes have been written and will continue to be written as our shared information spaces develop. So remember, a little ‘meta-effort’ can go a long way.

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