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As the leading marine and terrestrial resources monitoring organization in Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) in St. Petersburg manages and archives significant volumes of spatial data. Spatial datasets include satellite imagery and aerial photography as well as vector maps defining the natural habitats of countless sea creature, vegetation and wildlife species. In addition, the institute maintains numerous other nonspatial data relating to its research projects.

Despite the volume and variety of data, FWRI research scientists are learning not to waste precious time wondering if the dataset they need for a new project is already available within the institute or if the files are archived down the hall or across the state. They can obtain these details–and many others–for many of the datasets maintained at the institute by performing fast and easy metadata searches on the FWRI intranet site.

Data about Data

The term metadata refers to “data about data.” It describes the content, quality and attributes of a dataset as well as how and when it was created and for what purpose. At FWRI, metadata also contain details of the project for which the data were created or in which the data are being used. Metadata answer the basic questions of who, what, where, when, how and why–the key elements required to conduct fast and accurate searches for specific data files within a large database or set of databases.

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“Metadata” is a “bad word” at many research institutes. Scientists complain about the time required to enter the information, and managers gripe about the costs to maintain them. But you hear little grumbling about metadata at FWRI.

Just five years into a comprehensive metadata development and implementation plan, most researchers and managers at the institute have embraced the notion that efficient and cost-effective data management starts with metadata.

Although the project is ongoing, FWRI expects to see direct benefits from its investment in metadata editing and search tools. Cost savings will be incurred through the elimination of duplicate data development and acquisition as well as the minimization of staff time spent searching for data.

Already, metadata management has positioned FWRI to fulfill a goal of making its data more accessible to the public and outside researchers. FWRI is implementing the metadata database and Web-based server capabilities it needs to go online in 2005 as a node in the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s (FGDC) Geospatial Clearinghouse.

Creating a Metadata Strategy

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) formed FWRI in July 2004 by integrating the biological and research support staffs of its Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI) and its divisions of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. The new institute is tasked with providing the information needed to protect the state’s marine and freshwater resources and terrestrial wildlife habitats. Metadata management is more important than ever at FWRI, because it now must organize data from these three formerly separate entities.

The current metadata management strategy was initiated in 1999 by FMRI in response to President Clinton’s establishment of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), which encompasses policies, procedures and standards–including metadata–so organizations can cooperatively produce and share geographic data. As a partner in federally funded research projects, the institute could have chosen to apply metadata policies only to data involved in government programs, but instead opted to adopt an enterprisewide metadata strategy.

“FWRI stands out as an organization whose management decided to emphasize metadata as a critical part of a comprehensive management plan for the efficient use and distribution of its data,” says Bruce Westcott, metadata product manager for Intergraph Mapping and Geospatial Solutions. “As a result, FWRI and its partners are seeing the benefits of responsible data management, which ultimately saves money for tax payers and ensures information accessibility to the public.”

A Management System

FWRI purchased two metadata products from Intergraph to enact the plan. This first is the Spatial Metadata Management System (SMMS), which provides metadata entry, editing and capture capabilities. Utilizing XML/SGML exchange formats and compatible with Oracle and SQL Server databases, SMMS came equipped with built-in FGDC metadata standards for spatial data.

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Most appealing to the institute, the software incorporated U.S. Geological Survey/NBII biological metadata profiles. It also offered the unique ability to link with a spatial database and extract basic metadata from raster images and vector coverages, including the geographic coordinates of the “bounding box” (i.e., its northern-, southern-, eastern- and western-most locations).

Another advantageous feature was that the SMMS metadata authoring software can run on top of any GIS package or as a standalone desktop application, which the institute preferred.

The system’s second component is Intergraph GeoConnect, an application that allows users to search the metadata database via a standard Web browser. Out of the box, the application can be queried with key words or location coordinates that return a metadata abstract or full record, depending on the user’s desire. The application also can be integrated with Intergraph’s GeoMedia WebMap to create a geographical interface, allowing users to search by defining an area of interest on a digital map.

FMRI unveiled the system in 2002 following an extensive period in which metadata training and procedures were developed and documented. Rather than “cut the researchers loose” on the system, the institute educated them on the importance of proper metadata entry and trained them to create their own metadata reports. The institute credits the current success of the metadata program to this education, which helped foster “buy-in” among data users.

Entering and Searching Metadata

When an FWRI researcher receives approval to begin a new project, he or she commits in writing to create metadata for any data that are used or created. Researchers may work with technicians to extract, derive and prepare datasets throughout a project. Often the technicians take the lead in metadata development during the data production stage.

The institute’s metadata coordinator assists the technician or researcher in writing the metadata report. The user creates the report by accessing SMMS on one of 50 desktop computers that run the software. A graphical user interface prompt enables users to give the dataset a descriptive title, relating to the project in which it’s used.

The next crucial field contains an abstract of the research being conducted. Such emphasis on project-level metadata is because most FWRI scientists are likely to perform searches on research topics, such as “seagrasses” or “manatees,” as opposed to data types.

From this point, the software presents users with a variety of fill-in-the-blank fields and point-and-click selections to complete the report. In all cases, FGDC terminology and definitions for documentation are offered or verified by the system.

Based on the type of data involved, SMMS documentation highlights the appropriate fields and choices that should be satisfied. The entry procedure follows the FGDC content standards for data, which includes information relating to seven key sections of data content:

1. Data identification

2. Data quality

3. Spatial data organization

4. Spatial reference

5. Entity and attributes

6. Distribution

7. Metadata reference

While the complete metadata record is being generated, the system stores it in an Access database that the metadata coordinator can review when the researcher or technician has finished the entries. After the record has been completed and approved, it’s “promoted” to the Oracle database where it can be searched and viewed via GeoConnect by anyone on the FWRI intranet.

“The metadata search interface is easy to use; it involves selecting search terms from a menu or typing in key words. The user doesn’t need to worry about Oracle code,” notes Gail MacAulay, FWRI research scientist and Oracle administrator. “The search returns a list of metadata titles, which the user can select from to ‘drill down’ deeper into the database to find just the right dataset.”

When the searcher finds a suitable metadata file and pulls up the full report, the query results will contain pointers to where the actual data can be found and who is responsible for them. Rather than have researchers contact each other directly to request permission to obtain and use the data, FWRI has established procedures whereby the interested party e-mails the metadata coordinator, who then facilitates the acquisition of the data from the data source.

FWRI plans to become an active node on the FGDC Clearinghouse Web site (clearinghouse3.fgdc.gov) in 2005. This will allow outside researchers and the general public to search for data maintained by the institute. For security purposes, the GeoConnect tool is being considered because it would allow FWRI to designate certain metadata reports for access only within the institute.

Reaping the Benefits

From FWRI’s perspective, the metadata management program has been a significant accomplishment, because it has succeeded in giving data a life beyond a single project. Too often in the research world, a valuable dataset is stored away and forgotten after a project is completed. But at FWRI, data are becoming easier to share and reuse. And, most importantly, researchers only need a few minutes of browsing to accurately assess the value and relevance of an existing data file.

In terms of streamlining overall operations, the program also has improved staff efficiency. In the course of a year, FWRI gets many requests from federal and state organizations to participate in surveys regarding data availability on various research topics. Gathering the details required to complete these surveys once consumed hundreds of hours of staff time. Now the institute staff can generate such reports in minutes.

The most important benefit of metadata management, according to FWRI, will come in the near future, after the institute is linked as an FGDC Clearinghouse node. That’s when the general public and international research community will be able to view the institute’s considerable metadata holdings and multiply the return on investment that has been made on imagery, air photos and vector layers, often at taxpayers’ expense.

“The federal government is clearly pushing for publicly funded organizations to share their data and use them more efficiently,” adds Westcott. “FWRI is way ahead of most public agencies in this regard, and other organizations will be scrambling to play ‘catch up’ in the future if they don’t pay more attention to metadata now.”

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Jill Trubey of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute for considerable contributions to the content of this article.

Kevin Corbley is the principal in Corbley Communications Inc.; e-mail: kevin@corbleycommunications.com.