Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Metadata Update # 16- Metadata in the popular media

There hasn't been much new in the library world of metadata to report on or discuss over the summer.  I think that most of us have been busying learning, updating and applying much of what I have discussed already.  Of course, there was an update to RDA early in July but in the big scheme of all of the change that has been happening, things have been relatively quiet.

However, it appears that since late spring the popular media, particularly in the U.S., has become quite interested in the topic of metadata.  I know that I have heard stories on CBC radio more than once where metadata has been the topic of discussion.  One of the big questions that comes up is what metadata is.  So, it is a term that has worked its way into the vocabulary of many North Americans even if most are still not entirely clear as to what it means.  I think that a summary of how the media is describing it is  "it is not actually our phone conversations themselves but information about the phone calls such as what numbers they were placed to, where they originated from, the time of day", etc.  That's not a bad start.  It's a pretty narrow understanding but definately a good start.

Here is a little story from NPR where Larry Abramson discusses metadata and both cell phone calls and his own Gmail account:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/08/22/214172709/how-a-look-at-your-gmail-reveals-the-power-of-metadata

If you were able to do my mini-MOOC you will likely notice the similarity between the sorts of things that Allistair Croll was talking about in terms of big data or linked data and the sort of mapping of relationships that Cesar Hidalgo was able to extract from Abramson's account.  While Croll was talking on a bigger scale such as "red-lining" neighbourhoods, this story deals with metadata at the personal level.

While I think that there is no question that the topic of metadata has risen to the surface lately, even after all of the media coverage a general understanding of the full range of metadata that exists and how it is used is still relatively thin.  This is because the stories are really only about how certain types of metadata can be used to track the activities of individuals - whether that be for intelligence or marketing purposes.  For the most part, the types of metadata used either for military intelligence or for marketing (e.g. gmail) is either generated automatically as messages are processed through equipment such as cell phones/cell towers or is literally created from words and phrases harvested from email messages.  While a lot can be learned from this type of metadata when a large quantity of it exists for analysis, I argue that it is still crude metadata relative to the type that we are accustomed to creating and using on a daily basis.

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