Everything you need to know about metadata analysis

Metadata is everywhere and provides digital files with a wealth of information. But this data only serves its purpose if you use it.

While many users know how to find, retrieve, and interpret metadata, both manually and through software, that's only part of the story. The other part is deep analysis of the information found. This is metadata analysis.

Strands of digital data, a core area of study in metadata analysis.

This article discusses the different types of metadata analysis and offers insights into the technology surrounding these approaches.

Let's first look at the different methods that can and should be used to review metadata.

What is metadata analysis?

By metadata analysis, different people each mean something different, as the analysis can look very different depending on the situation. For some, the term means analyzing data from multiple sources, such as multiple scientific studies. For others, metadata analysis is synonymous with finding digital metadata, especially unseen data.

In either case, metadata analysis is a useful tool for those who handle large amounts of data. Accordingly, it is important to have all the tools and information on this topic at your disposal.

A holistic approach to metadata analysis

Depending on the types of information you are analyzing, you will probably have the best chance of success if you merge and unify different sources. That's why a comprehensive approach to metadata analysis is so effective. It draws on available data, including research on that data, and sifts through it for relevant information.

A representation of data in terms of digital points.

The following example will illustrate this effective approach.

Suppose you need to find out everything you can about two specific objects: an email and an attachment to that email. The first step would be to find the metadata. To do this, you would need to find various parts of the email and then download and review the data in the attachment. After that, you would need to analyze the information.

A holistic approach ensures that the analysis is complete, meaning that users identify and examine all available data, and also draw on the most meaningful analysis (especially if there are multiple 'reports').

Digital metadata analysis

Many difficult or at least complex metadata searches are likely to involve some type of digital object. In particular, computer files that contain large amounts of information are the subject of such searches. Why is this?

For example, suppose you own a photo album that contains a physical photo print. If you were asked to research and analyze the metadata of this photo, you would look at the photo and presumably at its reverse side and gather all the necessary data.

On the back of the photo there is metadata that is obvious to everyone, such as information about the 'who' and the 'when', as handwritten information or automatically printed by the camera.

Representation of floating digital data points, symbolic of metadata analysis.

If you compare this to a digital image, you'll notice that metadata analysis for a computer file can turn out to be very complex. Not only is the metadata harder to find, but interpreting it requires special skills that involve more than reading a few bits of information.

Unsurprisingly, metadata analysis often requires specialized approaches depending on the type of information being analyzed. There are entire specialties, such as computer forensics, devoted exclusively to the study of information in digital files.

Tools for successful metadata analysis

Because metadata analysis is designed so differently depending on the application, no program can call itself a pure metadata analysis tool. However, there are definitely programs and tools that can assist you in your own metadata analysis.

The first category of software you should look at includes applications that allow you to extract the metadata you are looking for. Again, this is situation-dependent, but you'll often find functions for viewing embedded metadata in a metadata editor.

Another common tool for better analysis is metadata management. It is used to update and control metadata on a technical level. This is an important aspect because accurate data is essential for more accurate analysis.

Whatever tools you end up using, make sure they are fit for the type of research and analysis you are trying to do.

Final considerations

The topic of metadata is far too complex to tackle with a single measure or approach. Instead, you must conduct your data analysis in the context of your individual and specific needs. Then, worthwhile results will emerge.