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Frequently Asked Questions about: GIS Help Desk: 609-777-0672

  1. What are metadata?
  2. What is the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) metadata standard and why should we follow this standard?
  3. Why is it important for metadata to be "machine-readable"?
  4. Should I be writing metadata?



  1. What are metadata?

    Metadata or "data about data" document the content, quality, condition and other characteristics of data. In essence, metadata answer who, what, when, where, why and how about the data.

    A note on grammar--the word "metadata" is a plural noun, like the word "data." Therefore, we ask, "what are metadata" rather than "what is metadata." Likewise, it is grammatically correct to say the "data are" rather than the "data is," though it is increasingly common to use both terms in a singular context. The academic GIS community most commonly adheres to the plural usage of both terms.

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  3. What is the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) metadata standard and why should we follow this standard?

    Online systems for handling metadata need to rely on their metadata being predictable in both form and content. Predictability is assured only by conformance to standards. The standard referred to is the Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata (CSDGM) set by the FGDC. To find this standard and other information about FGDC metadata standards please go to http://www.fgdc.gov/metadata/geospatial-metadata-standards. Metadata files that follow this standard are machine-readable so that they can be searched and parsed.

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  5. Why is it important for metadata to be "machine-readable"?

    Metadata that are machine-readable can be searched when loaded on a spatial data clearinghouse. A clearinghouse can be used to find spatial data created by other organizations. Because it is expensive and time consuming to create spatial data, it is often useful to share data with other organizations. This system works when organizations create metadata that meet FGDC standards and then submit their metadata to a spatial data clearinghouse. For more information on clearinghouses, see the FGDC Clearinghouse site.

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  7. Should I be writing metadata?

    If you are a data creator, you should definitely be writing metadata. If your organization creates data, then someone needs to write metadata.

    Metadata help people who use geospatial data find the data layers they need and determine how best to use them. Metadata help publicize and support the data you and your organization have produced or modified. It also protects an organization's investment in data. As personnel change in an organization, undocumented data may lose their value. Furthermore, lack of knowledge about other organizations' existing data can lead to duplication of effort.

    Metadata creation may seem burdensome, but in the long run it's worth it. Additional examples of the value of metadata are documented by the FGDC. Additional FAQs are available from the USGS.

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