Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How the Sugar Daddy Makes His Money

After a development cycle more cranked up than an ADHD two-year-old with a caffeine IV, my company released the next major version of the Metadata Registry to the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Department of Defense yesterday, to much cheering and applause. You can browse a few of the unrestricted pages here , but since most of you are pothead hippies, Russian spies or dirty Canadian socialists, getting an account is not bloody likely. Stupid hippies.

Since my evening was taken up with the installation, followed by some miscellaneous gallivanting in Falls Church, I was unable to write my original update for today: How to make a paper mach? Amber statue. To fill the void, I thought I'd write a public service announcement about why my job is important to the future of mankind1.

Every organization has data of some kind -- inventories, requisitions, or even the details of a particular vehicle. To ensure that everyone in the organization describes these things in the same way, they use metadata which is "data about the data". Metadata can be stored in a language like XML and tells users rules like "every minivan will have four wheels, and can seat four to seven people". By obeying the metadata, Colonel Bob in Omaha can trade his data with Private Poopson2 in the field and be assured that it's compatible.

This works fine within the organization, but over time, different organizations define their data in different ways, resulting in multiple stovepipes which cannot easily interact with other agencies. A simple example of this is the inability of neighbouring police departments to communicate during the 9/11 attacks because there was no standard frequency that could be shared.

This is where the Metadata Registry comes into play to save the world (had The 4400 really returned from the future to save humanity, I bet that building the registry would have been their first act). The Registry acts as a neutral middle ground where different agencies and organizations can publish their metadata. By putting all the metadata here, the Army and Marines might realize they have different definitions of what a tank is and work together to either create a common definition, or understand why there are differences between the two, (or they could duke it out on national television with the loser forced to use the winner's definition, which could be the start of a very lucrative show on FOX). If the Coast Guard suddenly captures a Havana tank on a routine run of the Florida-Cuba circuit but they don't yet have any metadata to describe it, they could just go to the registry and reuse the Army's tank definition. The ultimate goal is to promote reuse of similar metadata so more agencies are on the same page.

The other puzzle piece of the registry involves taxonomies. The Army and the Baltimore Aquarium might have very different definitions of a tank which have nothing to do with each other. Since it would probably not be cost effective to send two ton glass tanks to Baghdad, a taxonomy can be used to classify the Army tank as a "weapon of moving destruction" and the Aquarium tank as a "big thing to put sharks in".

The mix of metadata and taxonomies work together as a massive information playpen which has often been cited as a crucial piece of the Agency's data strategy, and over time, other agencies like NASA have joined in the fun. In laymen's terms, this translates as "no layoffs for BU".

1: I will only discuss the common knowledge portion of my job. There are no such thing as aliens, and we really did land on the moon.

2: etymology: Son of Poop

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