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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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
Metadata files that follow this standard are machine-readable
so that they can be searched and parsed.
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.
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
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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January 30, 2020