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Metadata everywhere

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A while back, I wrote about wanting an approximate date data structure, and the ability to attach level-of-uncertainty info to any given piece of data, and the ability to specify the source of any piece of information.

And a couple weeks ago, I wrote about being able to apply labels to social contacts in a folksonomy kind of way.

It recently occurred to me that those are all part of a bigger thing:

I want all data to come with metadata.

I know that in many contexts, a given database record can have metadata attached--for example, a lot of systems (including calendar and address book systems) have a "notes" field for each record. But I want metadata for each field in each record.

And I want this to be a standard part of all systems that store information.

Let's call it the Total Metadata Initiative.

Here's the situation that gave me the idea:

I had two phone numbers for a friend in my address book. One number was the newly preferred one; she was phasing out use of the other one. For some reason, though, I had left them both in my address book. The phone-number field in Apple's Address Book application is flexible; it can contain letters and punctuation and spaces as well as numbers. So in the phone-number field for the main number, after the number itself, I had typed a space and then "(preferred)"; in the phone-number field for the other number, after the number itself, I had typed a space and then "(deprecated)".

The iPhone, though, has less flexible phone-number fields. When I synced with the iPhone, it deleted the space and the parens, so the numbers appeared on the iPhone something like this: (408)-555-1212preferred.

And when I tried to dial that number, the iPhone cleverly turned all the letters into numbers and dialed them. It was also clever in various other ways, the end result of which was that I couldn't leave a message for my friend as long as that "preferred" text was part of the phone number.

So I realized that rather than the makeshift workaround I had tried (editing the phone number field itself), what I really wanted was the ability to attach a note or label to the phone number. (A note would be better than a simple label--I'd like to be able to add a comment saying, for example, "This phone number is only valid until September 5, 2009, and only between the hours of 5 and 9 p.m. on weekdays.")

I could, of course, add several sentences' worth of notes (maybe one sentence for each phone number) as a single big note in the Notes field of the person's address-book entry. ("[Number x] is deprecated. [Number y] is now preferred, as of [date].") But that's inelegant--it removes the direct connection between each number and its corresponding note.

So at the very least, I'd like there to be a single freeform "Notes" field attached to each field of each record. (So each phone number, for example, would have its own (optional) Notes field.) But really, why not go further? Allow people to optionally attach a full set of arbitrary metadata to every field. Sometimes it might be structured and machine-usable metadata (like the approximate-date, level-of-uncertainty, and source info I mentioned above); sometimes it might be freeform, like a note or a label. It might also be useful to attach links to fields--for example, Apple's Address Book app is not very good at dealing with the extremely common situation where two or more people share a phone number and/or an address. You can either put them both in one record (which means you need labels or notes to indicate which one of them a given cell-phone number belongs to), or you can give them their own separate records (which means the app isn't aware that there's any connection between them). (The app does have a great feature that lets you specify the names of people connected to a given person--you can specify spouse's name, child's name, etc--but those names aren't linked to their own records.) It might be nice to allow the user to add a "shared-by" link between person A's home phone and person B's home phone. (It might also be nice to have the app automatically notice duplication and create those links, but that's a different feature area than what I'm talking about in this entry.)

Also, of course, it's still important to be able to add metadata to the entire record, not just a single field; I want to have a Notes field that applies to the whole record as well as one for each field in the record.

When I told her about all this, the friend whose phone number had been at issue said something like, "And you could have meta-metadata for every metadata field, too!" I said that was crazy talk. But yes, you could indeed extend the TMI to apply recursively to metadata fields.

I also have vague wild-eyed ideas about connecting the TMI to another system I've been thinking about, in which anything can be labeled as a to-do item. But that's another topic for another day.

Btw, I don't claim that anything in this entry is entirely original; for example, I suspect that a fair bit of it was prefigured by features of Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu. It's been a while since I read about Xanadu in any detail, and I haven't gone back and checked.

3 Comments

I want all data to come with metadata.

Welcome to Library & Information Science!

The iPhone, though, has less flexible phone-number fields. When I synced with the iPhone, it deleted the space and the parens, so the numbers appeared on the iPhone something like this: (408)-555-1212preferred.

But the iPhone allows you to choose what sort of number it is (home, mobile, work) including the option to create customized options (preferred, depricated). I have no idea if Address Book plays nicely with that feature, but being Apple products both, I should think that metadata would flow smoothly somehow. Is there really no phone-number-type option in Address Book? What happens to that metadata when you slurp phone numbers from your iPhone back to your Mac?

Let's call it the Total Metadata Initiative. [...] When I told her about all this, the friend whose phone number had been at issue said something like, "And you could have meta-metadata for every metadata field, too!" I said that was crazy talk. But yes, you could indeed extend the TMI to apply recursively to metadata fields.

This works really well as a name-backformed-from-acronym, assuming that's what it was. I didn't notice it until the very end :-)


Of course, metadata is only as good as the policy in place for using and, more importantly, filling-in the metadata. Some personality types (like me) just won't enter it, which limits its usability.

If I had a tag on a phone number, I'd never remember to look at it, but if I could change the entry itself (as in your example in the Address Book app) that would be nice. So metadata needs to be automatically intrusive for me to even use it. But once it is intrusive, I question how "meta" it is at that point.

Still, I am all for adding arbitrary information--I've never met a data system that didn't need it.


Wayman: I can create customized fields in Address Book, but I didn't realize they might sync nicely with iPhone. I'll have to give that a try.

Still, I would rather have a label/comment field attached to an existing phone number field. Otherwise, I have to create a custom field named (say) "cell (preferred)" and another one named "home (preferred)" and another one named "work (deprecated)" and so on. And I really don't want to create a custom phone-number field named "Only call between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and leave a message for Luigi".

...Yup, the acronym was intentional. I was looking for a good acronym and playing around with possibilities, and that one popped out as especially appropriate, especially since it suggests (I hope) that nobody should take this idea too seriously. :)

Allogenes: yes, very good point about people having to actually use the metadata. I have hundreds, possibly thousands, of unlabeled photos to attest to this.

But that doesn't mean I don't want my photos to have a Caption field; when I do use it, it's very useful. Under TMI, even if I only added labels to one in a hundred fields, it would still be really useful to me in those specific situations where I needed it. (The question of whether it's worth the design and engineering time/resources to implement this is a valid question; but that's part of why I want TMI to be implemented universally, so the engineers doing application programming wouldn't have to implement it themselves.)

As for intrusiveness of viewing (which I think is a somewhat separate issue from people's willingness to add metadata), yeah, I would want there to be a "this field has one or more metadata values attached to it" marker. On the iPhone, it could display the first few letters of the label (or just an asterisk or something), and you could tap to see the whole thing.


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