The Importance of Understanding Metadata in Modern Society

Data is the fundamental basis for our lives today. Future generations will able to look back at all our data -- via sources like Twitter, Facebook -- and paint an accurate picture us. And yet, the vast majority of us simply don't understand how data works. According to David Weinberger in his article "Digital Meta-Literacy" on KMorld, "we need to be especially wary of believing something because the people we hang out with on the Net believe it. Falling prey to confirmation bias, as it is known, is especially easy online because our social apps work by putting us together with people who share most of our opinions."

Even fewer have an understanding of one of the most fundamental units of data we have today: Metadata. Metadata directly controls lives, from property taxes to drivers' licenses to employment records to even web pages. And yet almost none of our pupils know about it; however, even a rudimentary understanding of metadata would allow students to garner a critical understanding of how modern societies drive electronic data.

As a result of the great importance of teaching students about metadata, but a lack of general knowledge, has created a lightweight Mac app called Sapphire that gives the students a way to work with project management tasks, study node relationships, and see how data constructions look underneath the pretty web pages or fancy documents.

After downloading the software, teachers can ask students to understand how metadata is stored in all of our modern day files (such as web pages, Word documents, and images), what kind of information does metadata stores, and how the metadata interacts between different sources.

PhoneApp's ambition with Sapphire is to find some educators -- specifically computer science teachers -- to discuss metadata and at least make students aware of how tiny pieces of data rule this world.

Why exactly should students care to know about metadata? Well, it's for the same reasons that teachers have students find the "quality" of the source. According to Weinberger, "physical embodiments of ideas and knowledge usually carry implicit marks of their authority. If you're reading a printed book, you know that it's gone through some extensive set of filters because printing books is expensive." On the other hand, online material doesn't have these marks on it, and so students should be able to ask questions like "is this a trustable source?" "Is it verifiable?" "Has it been peer-reviewed?"

And sure, students generally can verify the sources without metadata.... At the end of the day, however, understanding metadata will allow students to look underneath the previously assumed-to-be-truthful beliefs and really understand whether or not sources are truthful. Humans have always been on the search for truth, and understanding metadata will allow them to understand the truth behind the institution that literally rules our lives: the Internet.

About the Author:

Rajat Bhageria is the author of What High School Didn't Teach Me: A Recent Graduate's Perspective on How High School is Killing Creativity. Additionally, he is the founder of ThirdEye and is currently a student at UPenn. Find out more about Rajat at his personal blog: