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Meta Data, Cooperation and the Federal Government

Published
  • November 01 2005, 1:00am EST

As a practitioner whose interests in information strategy are relevant in both the public and commercial sectors, I am always intrigued when I see good ideas in one sector that can be applied in practice across many administrative environments. This month's column is about one of those ideas - what it is, what it entails and why I am hopeful for its success.

In the past, I have referred to the ISO/IEC 11179 standard for meta data registries, which is a relatively straightforward specification of a registry for both describing and managing meta data. The standard itself, which can be viewed at http://metadata-standards.org/11179/, provides a very good introduction to meta data concepts, including a lot of insight into some aspects of the granularity of meta data, approaches to its management and suggestions about naming conventions.

There are two aspects to the standard that I find particularly appealing. The first is that because its simplicity lends itself to adaptation, an organization must define its policies and procedures for guiding and governing meta data management. The second is that the representational simplicity allows for easy sharing of meta data, as well as easily enabling the governance workflow within an enterprise or even across enterprises where information is shared.

An effort is being undertaken by representatives from a number of federal agencies in contributing ideas and approaches to sharing meta data. The vision of this group, the Federal Meta Data Management Consortium (FMMC), is to "improve the quality, understandability and efficiency of federal information through the practice of meta data management principles." I can imagine the number of citizens rolling their eyes, thinking, "Not another empty threat of the federal government to improve efficiency."

Fortunately, having attended some meetings and spoken to some of the people involved, I have high hopes for this group's success. The FMMC's stated mission is to "promote sound meta data management principles across federal government agencies through collaborative work in the use of data registries and sharing of meta data, resources, know-how and lessons learned." Practically, though, the members of the group are quite knowledgeable in information management best practices and, in fact, its collective knowledge was demonstrated through a set of comments provided during a review of the Department of Homeland Security's proposed data reference model. It seemed that comments from FMMC members directly addressed some of the more questionable aspects of the proposal.

In essence, the FMMC was formed by people working on 11179-based meta data registries who meet once a month to discuss issues concerning the design and use of these registries. The registries are intended to capture any kind of meta data about information packages. Conceptually, this includes what we usually think of as meta data (e.g., data element names, sizes, types, etc.) but also is intended to incorporate more creatively defined meta data about other kinds of information objects. For example, this would include meta data about photographs (e.g., when was the photograph taken, when was it developed, who took the picture), voicemail messages (e.g., when was it recorded) or video clips (e.g., copyright information).

What I find most interesting about this initiative is the goal of collaborative work. Consider this scenario: there are many federal agencies, and each has some kind of internal information management requirements as well as some information-sharing requirements. Additionally, as has been shown by large-scale disaster situations such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, there is a great need for effective, rapid communication between government agencies. Defining, agreeing to definitions of and sharing meta data for exchanged data are all critical for effective communications. Because people at some agencies have more experience in meta data management than others, the FMMC goal of collaborative work is more than just lip service. FMMC members not only help in directing new efforts, but are also looking at ways to share resources (software, hardware, procedures, etc.) for meta data management for those agencies who are not ready to invest in the infrastructure needed for developing a meta data registry.

It is worthwhile to take a look at the different ways that these agencies are leveraging the 11179 standard - check out these Web sites:

At a glance, you can glean a lot of information about different uses of meta data registries from these sites.
Why is this interesting to readers who are not working with the federal government? Mostly because of what we can learn from this example of cooperation. The U.S. government is huge and so is the number of agencies that use or exchange information. If a group of meta data professionals representing a number of different U.S. agencies can sit down to explore how they can collaborate on meta data definitions and representations, it shows that it may be possible for meta data professionals in smaller organizations to do the same. For more information about this group, contact me at loshin@knowledge-integrity.com and I will forward your questions to the right contacts.

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