Metadata: the essential gateway to discoverability and traceability

In today’s world where content discovery depends on powerful algorithms, using metadata – data that identifies the content – becomes more crucial than ever for creators and producers. Here is an analysis of the main indexing standards you need to ensure the traceability of your content in the digital universe.

There’s no doubt that the dematerialization of cultural products in the video and music industry is well underway. In 2016, 53% of the world’s population had gone online and 38% used a smartphone, while 317.3 million people watched video content on television through a bypass service (OTT) and over 51 million recorded musical works were available for streaming.

For the first time in history, streaming offers a personalized à-la-carte content list for each consumer. This paradigm shift represents a massive cultural revolution whose effects are still difficult to even measure, but it’s certain to have immense repercussions on supply, demand, and the complex issues involved in managing both.

From now on, the real showcases for cultural offerings are found in the information technology and communications sector. The business model for these companies is based on valuing information and behaviour and not the actual merchandising of cultural products, like selling music, films, and books. As British mathematician Clive Humby puts it, “Data is the new oil.” Data is the fuel that drives the new economy.

As early as 2006, digital environment theoretician Chris Anderson wrote in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More that in the new context of hyperchoice, a force “that helps people find what they want within this new superabundance” has become a necessity. And the notion of discoverability was born.

Discoverability is clearly embodied in search and recommendation tools. The effectiveness of these tools unquestionably rests on the use of data that describes the data they accompany, that is, the descriptive metadata. Today no one is unaware of the key role that algorithms play in searching and recommending content. Without the data, the algorithms cannot tell us what we want to know.

The importance of metadata

Metadata is the identity card for digitized cultural content. It represents the descriptive information that gets removed during the transition to digital: the booklet, the credits... This metadata, associated with a resource or a work of art, allows it to be described and traced in digital networks. It’s a complex universe that also encompasses legal or contractual metadata, ISO unique identifiers, usage data, and microdata used in web crawling and for the automatic display of information by search robots.

The exponential multiplication of uses now requires that we set up metadata-driven automated processes. The traceability and the appropriate identification of content allow us to automate the processes of accountability, remuneration of creators, producers and associated contributors, and the renewal of the offer by a chain of professional players. Traceability of cultural content holds great value, as does the ability to trace any other asset in a given distribution chain.

When it comes to exploiting online content, descriptive metadata has become as important as the content itself. However, up to now, the addition of metadata has been left up to the sole discretion of content creators and producers.

It’s a repetitive task: companies must gather information from multiple online interfaces for aggregators, performing rights organizations, legal deposit, song lyrics, etc. Moreover, the possibility of human error and the lack of consistency in the information amassed often result in malfunctions in the overall merchandising chain.

The time has come for the cultural industries to work together in defining formats for processing content – of digital media and cultural objects (DMCO) – in order to enrich them with the necessary metadata, to give themselves methods that are simple, but also systematic for the job at hand.

Overview of the standards now in place to identify a digital object

Various standards for indexing information now exist. It’s now more necessary than ever to adhere by them, as they must be read, understood, and exploited by all machines so that the content we’re looking for can emerge. It’s up to industry players to evaluate these standards, adopt the ones that work best, and get government support for their efforts in this quest.

Standards like these, such as those proposed by the DDEX consortium, are already used by major global players, including Amazon, Apple, and Google. So, it’s very important that Canadian content producers and creators align with these global standards. DDEX standards transmit content and record sales figures according to standards that automate the distribution chain – much like the EDI or GDSN programs used by Walmart.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), for its part, frames the definition of standards and unique identifiers for many industrial and economic sectors, including cultural industries. The ISO TC46 / SC 9 technical committee deals with 24 standards for the cultural sectors. The ISO’s increasingly well-known identifiers include ISBN, ISRC, ISWC, ISAN, and many others.

Finally, other standards such as the UN-LOCODE of the European Economic Commission of the United Nations allow you to locate a geographical location, an important element to be added to the metadata in order to frame the origin of a digital asset or where the producer is located.

I believe it is now an urgent matter for Canadian cultural industries to adopt business practices that meet global standards for indexing digitized content and show that they are committed, along with the relevant governmental bodies, to the definition and continual evolution of these practices.

Jean-Robert Bisaillon
Jean-Robert Bisaillon is a specialist in descriptive metadata for the cultural sector. He co-manages the LATICCE (Laboratoire de recherche sur la découvrabilité et les transformations des industries culturelles à l’ère du commerce électronique) at UQAM. He also heads the development of the TGiT software, which indexes metadata for the music industry, packages and exports the metadata in accordance with international standards, and promotes the data as well as blockchain technologies over the web.
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