Uncategorized #18 — I’ve got a metadata joke, but it’s buried in my Twitter feed.

July 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

“Lets us travel the way the child travels around and around back home again. To a place where we know we are loved”

Don Draper

Hello! It’s been a while. I was thinking to write a lengthy post on why it’s been a while, but then I thought, maybe that’s just boring, cliche, and TMI. So whatever, I took a brief, hiatus, and now I’m back. I’m glad you are still here. Let’s get on with it.

I’ve been thinking about what to write about all week since I decided to reboot this newsletter. I was going back and forth on a number of topics, some of which I think I’ll get to in another letter, but for some reason, I kept coming back to this metadata rant I’ve been thinking about for a long while.

Yeah sorry, a newsletter about metadata. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized, maybe it’s actually kind of important and relevant considering the world we live in today. The truth is, metadata is the stuff that makes this whole thing work. The entirety of the internet, nearly every advancement in technology, even our own personal histories, would be lost if weren’t for metadata. So yeah, this seems like something worth discussing out loud.

This is gonna be so meta

Quick unavoidable mansplain–metadata is just data about other data. But you already knew this. I suppose you could also have meta-metadata, like a website catalog of other datasets. I guess you could also have meta-meta-metadata, like an awesome-list of all those websites. We could keep going, but I think you get the point.

For the past 10 years I’ve been working in and with museums. (Wow, I can’t believe it’s actually been a whole decade!) Museums have TONS of metadata, but not like Bigdata, just plain old boring metadata, usually describing the things they know a bit about. I say a bit, because in my experience with these kinds of institutions there is often just a below-the-surface-iceberg worth of incomplete, incorrect, unverified, unknown, information about the things in a museum’s collection.

And how could they? Museums and all kinds of cultural orgs hoover up things as fast as they can. Whole archives of files and information are donated continually to these places, and often the strategy is to think of these things as problems for another day. That’s fine. It’s human nature to postpone hard work.

But still, despite this mountain of work, there is a TON of good and (although not always obvious) useful metadata.

The metadata makes the world go round

I think one of the things I realized really early on at my job with Smithsonian was that without the catalog, we didn’t really have a collection. I mean, the collection may have existed, but it’s nothing more than things stored in a building if you don’t have a way to understand it from afar.

What’s more is that if the catalog was only available to a select few, a few really problematic things would continue to happen.

  1. The catalog would never really develop beyond the top priorities of the institution. Everything else was that problem for another day I mentioned.
  2. Nobody else would be able to interpret the collection on their own. An outsider’s only way of understanding it would always take place through the lens of the institution, typically through exhibitions and events.

So these problems I think promoted the idea of open data within museums and other organizations (think civic data, governments, environmental data, etc.). And so open access initiatives at museums are pretty popular these days, which makes me happy, but it’s not enough.

Metadata in the time of a pandemic

One thing that is certain about this pandemic is that it has raised a TON of important questions about the way we are functioning or difunctional as a society all around the world. The confusion and criticism around the different data initiatives and how they are used politically, economically and ecologically, are profound. The thing is though, the pandemic has only highlighted these issues that have always been there.

I’m talking now about the open data initiatives around the pandemic data from places like the CDC, the Johns Hopkins open datasets, the New York Times datasets, and also the open data around the Payroll Protection Program, the economic stimulus act, and many others.

When I worked at Cooper Hewitt I realized at one point that I could easily influence others with simple graphs and charts. Metadata is this powerful tool that could be easily wielded, without much thought or consideration, and watching all of this unfold on the news over the pandemic and the economy has really brought that to my attention again. These “charts” with hand drawn bubbles and highlights we keep seeing on TV, in daily updates from our so called leaders, are presumably based on some kind of “good data.” The interactive data visualizations we keep seeing on sites like nytimes.com, which are there to help us understand and in a certain way, ultimately make decisions about how we choose our leadership the next time we get a chance, or how we live our lives, and all the little micro-decisions we make every day–this is all predicated on the notion that we are looking at something factual, based on real and good underlying data, and interpreted in a way that is fair and unbiased.

And then there is my photo archive

Lately I’ve been pondering my photo archive. Ok, I will confess, this is something I’ve been pondering for actual decades, but it comes up for me in this moment so here we are again.

It’s not just about being able to find that picture of great great grandma and being able to identify the other people in the picture or where the picture was taken or what event is depicted in the picture. It’s much more holistic than that. It’s just like the museum collection metadata problem. There’s already a ton of data to look at, and then there’s also just a ton of missing, incorrect and problematic data to deal with.

The photo archive problem is on the personal level. It’s about hanging on to memories, and passing something on to the next generation. It’s a mechanism we’ve developed since photography was invented, but it’s more than just the pictures and the little notes scribbled on the back.

To me, photography and museum collection data, and open datasets about COVID-19 all fall into the same big bucket we call “storytelling.” Passing on the what-happened to the next generation, future generations after that, and to whomever is lucky enough to walk this earth so far into the future that it’s only the stories they have to rely on. Just think about that for a moment–it’s only the stories they have to rely on. Somewhere, a million miles down the road, someone else will look at all this stuff we created, thought was important enough to write down somewhere for long term safe keeping, and they will only have what is in front of them to make sense of it all, make their own decisions every day, and create their own worlds to live in.

Do these couple of things

So, if I had any advice to give you out of this long winded way of saying metadata is important, it would be these things here:

  1. Get off Instagram for a while.
  2. Print out your photos and write stuff on the back.
  3. Put them together somewhere and use them to tell your story (like a photo album).
  4. Sit with your kids, nieces, nephews, grandkids, friends, colleagues, followers, or whoever, and tell those stories.

Remember going over to a friends house and watching a boring slideshow? Sitting through that miserable half hour, eating a few chips and pretending to enjoy each and every photo of your friend in front of another welcome to wherever sign? I know many of you may not. That’s unfortunate. It’s become a thing we used to do, and even though it was super boring and annoying, it was actually really important. Figure out a way to bring that back. Watch that scene from Mad Men again where Don pitches “It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel” and figure out a way to get back to those moments.


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