What Exactly Is Metadata?

I remember the first time I was sitting in a classroom for training on metadata.  The trainer came out and started the class giving us the definition of metadata.  I had my pen and paper ready as I joined others in anticipation of the definition of this new technical term in the legal world.

He said:

"Metadata is data about data."

What the.....?

I wondered if there was a joke I wasn't getting.  His definition told me nothing about what metadata was.

So what exactly IS metadata?

Metadata is the information about electronic data which is hidden from the average user.

Here's what this means:

If you go to a Microsoft Word document and open it, you will see the text on the screen.  So where is the metadata?  

In the Word document, click on FILE > INFO

You will see the "properties" for the document which is the metadata.

So, now you can see some detailed information about this document that you would have not seen by just viewing it normally in Microsoft Word.  

Just by viewing the document in Microsoft Word, you would not have known that I was the author of the document, how long I worked on it (Total Editing Time), when I created or modified it.

The most important information would probably be the entries for "Last Modified" and "Last Created Dates".   This is why it is crucial that you protect electronic data so that it isn't accidentally altered.  

So how do you preserve the metadata?  One way is to make your data "read only" so that if someone opens the data that they are not able to change anything.  

So, yes, metadata is data about data but it is better to know that metadata is the hidden data from the average user.  

If you are asking for data and you want to preserve the metadata in your case, you should ask for the "native files".  Do not ask for the native files to be printed or turned over as PDF files.  Printing them out to paper eliminates the metadata and converting to PDF can change the metadata information to reflect the PDF converted document and not the original native file.

While I am showing you the example of a basic Microsoft Word document, you can also see the metadata in other types of data as well.  Email is also another important type of data which would have metadata associated with it.  I will dive further into email metadata in another article.

The important thing to remember is that metadata exists in most every electronic data we receive.  Keep in mind that it exists and make sure it is preserved.  

For additional information about metadata, check out Lifewire's article on "What is Metadata?"


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