Monday, February 16, 2015

Metadata Creation - A Must for Caribbean Organizations

Valrie Grant – MSc, GISP (Author)
Carlton J Smith - (Contributing Editor)

Metadata creation is probably the least attractive task in building datasets in a GIS (Geographic Information System) and hence remains a low priority among dataset developers. Recently, I was having a discussion about Metadata and decided to poll my audience as to whether they created Metadata within their organizations. As it turned out none of the organizations were creating Metadata.  I was not surprised by the results of this informal poll, as unfortunately this is something that I have come to expect. Very few Organizations within the Caribbean actively create metadata. The question though is, why?

What is Metadata?
Metadata documents information about data. It describes: 
  • How a dataset was collected or created
  • When it was collected or created
  • Location it was collected or created
  • Who performed the creation or collection
  • How the data is formatted
  • Any constraints on how the data may be used 
  • Data characteristics including content, condition, accuracy and quality.
Metadata is just like the information you would read on the labels of a drink bottle. On the labels, you could learn about the bottle’s contents: the nutritional values of the drink, the number of calories, the ingredients, whether it contains preservatives, the weight, the company that packaged it and its location, and more. That information is used to make a decision as to whether it is safe to consume this drink or not. Metadata therefore allows us to make a decision on the fitness for purpose of that data.

It is perplexing then, when a GIS department of an organization/entity can simply dismiss metadata creation as being too time consuming. What is further a cause for even greater concern is how an organization would spend thousands of dollars creating datasets but do not ensure that these datasets are delivered with the associated metadata. 

Metadata Benefits
There are many benefits to be derived from creating metadata. Among them are the following:
  • Protecting an organization's resource investment in data creation
  • Creating  institutional memory
  • Countering personnel changes
  • Allows sharing of data with other agencies
  • Savings in  time and money
  • Limiting potential liability
  • Cataloging and discoverability
Why then do so many organizations in the Caribbean fail to create metadata along with their datasets? Could it be they are just not aware of the many benefits of creating metadata? Or do they think compliance with metadata standards is just too complicated? Or is it a simple case where the organization's business process maturity has not progressed to the point where it ought to be?

Whatever the reasons, as GIS professionals it is our responsibility to guide the change in current practices. We must become the change agents and find creative ways to educate and influence the decision makers. Metadata creation must become a mandatory standard within the GIS implementation strategies for all organizations. Metadata standards must be adopted!

Cataloging and Discoverability
Going back to the matter of cataloging and discoverability. Automated cataloging of datasets depends heavily on the availability of datasets' metadata. Automation improves productivity and facilitates faster time to decision with less susceptibility to human error. Information systems are now designed with the ability to generate intelligence from the data presented. Metadata deepens that process and enhances the quality of the intelligence produced. Automated discovery of data is facilitated by having metadata conforming to specific standards. 

Discoverability facilitates the creation of a vast network of information stores that can grow intelligently because within itself is the ability to discover, create linkages and extend intelligence. The concept of Semantic Web now becomes more real that is “… a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries."

Getting There
We need to get everyone to appreciate that metadata creation becomes less complicated and time consuming when standards are adopted. The focus would then shift to ensuring that standard practices are compliant with international requirements.  While there is no single strategy or approach to achieving full compliance, there are some important steps in this process:
  1. Research the practice of those at the forefront of the GIS industry
  2. Develop internal metadata standards that complies with recommended best practice
  3. Develop an organizational implementation plan
  4. Conduct metadata workshops
  5. Select appropriate Metadata editing tool
  6. Require contractors and data developers to adhere to defined metadata standards
Adequate metadata development requires enforcement of implemented standards and calls for commitment. There is no way around it if we want to be part of the “Semantic Web”. 

In the past, shortsightedness of decision makers has cost the Caribbean region much of its advantages - loosing out to other regions of the world.  This is an opportunity to assist in developing and building the Spatial Data Infrastructure of the Caribbean region. Let's not loose it!

It will take an effective metadata strategy involving cooperative efforts, incentives, and new ideas to make metadata part of mainstream activities within the GIS community of the Caribbean region. Can we go beyond organization and countries to creating a metadata profile for the Caribbean region?

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