The Metadata Secret in Your Data

The volume of information your company creates and stores digitally is growing every day. Every business system in your organization creates or uses some type of data, making the job of records management challenging.

Records managers need to create systems and policies that enable them to keep track of all the information the company has, where it’s located, how it’s used and who can access it. They need to ensure it’s easily accessible and managed in accordance with the record keeping requirements of their organization. In many cases, there are also external regulatory compliance rules that dictate how records need to be managed.

If you had to manage records based only on the contents of the record itself, it would be very difficult. Likewise, searching for information across the organization would also be challenging. This is where metadata plays an important role in records management.

What is Metadata?

The simplest definition of metadata is “data that describes other data.” But what does that mean?

Here’s a good definition from The Minnesota Electronic Records Management Guidelines(1):

“Metadata allows users to locate and evaluate data without each person having to discover it anew with every use. Its basic elements are a structured format and a controlled vocabulary, which together allow for a precise and comprehensible description of content, location, and value.”

Essentially metadata is information that describes a record. It might tell you what the record is for (description), how it’s categorized when it was created and by whom, who should be able to access it, and so on.

Metadata is important because it allows you to know what information you have without having to go through the actual information itself, and facilitates data sharing much more quickly.

One of the best ways to describe metadata is as follows(2): “Metadata interweaves itself throughout all information; like DNA, it serves as the genetic makeup of data. So even though metadata may not be the most obvious data created, it holds tremendous value in unlocking and exploiting the value of enterprise information.”

Types of Metadata You Capture

Metadata comes in a number of different forms. In every case, metadata describes the content it is connected to in some way.

There are three primary categories of metadata:

  • Descriptive: Descriptive metadata attributes tell you who created (authored) the record, the title of the record, category, abstract, keywords, and so on. This information is used to identify and discover records.
  • Structural: Structural metadata attributes tell you the type of data – file size, file type, media. It can also describe how the record is structured (e.g., a book with chapters and sections), or how a record is laid out. In some cases, structural metadata will tell you what kind of hardware or software is needed to view the data.
  • Administrative: Administrative metadata attributes provide information on how to manage the record. This metadata tells you when the record was created, last updated, who can access it (rights management), how it must be preserved or disposed of.

Some of the metadata described above is automatically captured by the systems the record is added to or created within. In other cases, it must be manually added by users. But metadata can’t simply be arbitrarily assigned. If everyone took their own approach to how to assign and name metadata attributes, then the metadata would be useless.

Metadata structures must be designed and developed by a team of people across the organization representing different, but important, aspects of the company such as legal, compliance, IT, LOBs and, of course, records management.

Setting metadata structures ensures the company’s records are properly maintained and follow identified requirements for data capture, maintenance, preservation or disposition.  Clearly defined metadata structures also enable you to share data more easily across the organization, connecting otherwise disconnected data sources.

There are a number of different standards you can or may be required to follow when creating your metadata structure, including:

Metadata structures are also becoming a key component of data management in the Life Sciences industry.With the increase in mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations, there is a growing need for standards across the industry. (3):

“In this new paradigm, metadata, along with its storage and usage, has taken on a central role during the lifecycle, from Data Capture through Regulatory Submission. Metadata is stored in multiple formats and types across business functions. To increase reusability, consortiums have implemented standard and customized workflows, and process flows for metadata. Many 3rd party consortiums such as CDISC, MedDRA, Who Drug etc., have developed, published, and disseminated multiple versions of key study metadata and standard dictionary terminology that have become not only an integral part of study conduct, but also serve as a direct driver for the realization of cost, time, and resource savings.”

Key Functions of Metadata

We understand what metadata is, but how it is used across the organization?

  • Data Archiving/Preservation: Records managers can quickly identify records that need to be archived or disposed of based on metadata attributes. For example, all records created before 2000 can be archived, while all records created before 1995 can be disposed of.
  • Data Discovery: Metadata eases the searching of information across the organization. Users can search by key metadata – such as owner, or keywords, category or data created. You can also base discovery on combinations of attributes, narrowing the number of records selected.
  • Data Organization: With the massive amount of information created and stored within an organization, metadata provides an easy way to organize it, making it discoverable, but also to enable users to group records based on a metadata attribute such as category. Search is also greatly improved because results can be organized into facets based on metadata attributes.
  • Data Interoperability: Much of the value in the information an organization stores is not simply on individual records, but in how information relates to other information. Finding and understanding these relationships can be challenging. Metadata can provide the bridge between disparate data sources enabling users to find quickly all the records they need across different systems. One example is finding all the patients who took a type of blood test that resulted in a particular result, between two dates. Results would include information from patients database, a blood test records database, a correspondence system and more.

Metadata is Always Accruing

It’s clear that metadata aids in identifying and using information across the organization easily. Records managers play an important role in designing metadata structures because they understand the record keeping requirements of the company (both internal requirements and those imposed by regulatory bodies).

It’s also important to understand that you don’t create metadata once and then never change it again. As records are used or updated, certain metadata attributes are also changed. You may need to apply new rules for retention and disposition; rights management rules may change; records may move or new relationships defined. The key is to capture continually and proactively apply metadata attributes for the life of the record.

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