Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Metadata's Social Consequences

Continuing on yesterday's theme of the everyday person pitted against the information professional, I came across this example in a reading for class.

"In the mid-2000s, the Chinese government began a process of modernizing nationality identity cards, which required storing citizens’ names in a computerized database (Lafraniere, 2009). Given the wide breadth of characters in Chinese, the people implementing the system decided to limit the characters that could be used. The implementation covered over 32,000 of the 55,000 characters in the language, leaving many characters out of the system.

"The result of this simple decision about what information could be stored had a significant impact: some people had names with obscure characters that could not be entered into the new government database. For many people, the best alternative was to change their names to something the system could handle. In this case, metadata had a social consequence" (p. 14).

When the authority (in this case the Chinese government) creates a system that isn't able to adequately meet its users' needs, the users are the ones who suffer but the designer of the system is the one at fault. At first glance this situation seems pretty crazy; a government identification system that forces people to change their very names because it can't deal with unusual or obscure words! But then you realize, wait, that actually seems a little familiar... because a lot of "difficult" names were changed when immigrants arrived in the US more than a century ago. As information professionals, of course it's important to build accurate, usable, and consistent systems, but the most efficient system in the world is not a good one if it does its users a disservice.

Greenberg, Ryan, Kimra McPherson, and Matthew Mayernik. (2010). Metadata: Storing Descriptions. In The Discipline of Organizing, edited by Robert J Glushko.

No comments:

Post a Comment