Introduction to Metadata Interoperability

Metadata interoperability is the ability of two or more information systems to exchange metadata with minimal loss of information. This does not address data compatibility—only interoperability of descriptive metadata.

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) defines interoperability as the capability to communicate, execute programs, or transfer data among various functional units in a manner that requires the user to have little or no knowledge of the unique characteristics of those units. If you replace the word “data” with the word “metadata” in this definition, the definition is accurate for metadata interoperability. An important aspect is that interoperable metadata can be used by computer systems, in contrast to metadata that is designed to be read and understood solely by a person.

Benefits of Interoperability

Interoperable metadata allows multiple systems to work with the same set of data and metadata. It helps ensure metadata records associated with one resource can be accessed, accurately interpreted, and used by a system or integrated with metadata records associated with other resources. Interoperable metadata facilitates operations such as these:

  • Importing data easily and accurately into tools such as statistical programs, GIS systems, and graphing packages.
  • Locating a dataset through multiple catalogs without the provider having to duplicate metadata.
  • Creating customized portals that draw data from multiple repositories.

Achieving Interoperability

Several practices help ensure that metadata become more interoperable: using widely-accepted metadata standards or specifications (see Metadata Standards), expressing your metadata in machine readable formats (see Machine Readability), and using terms from established controlled vocabularies to express the content of your metadata and data (see Vocabularies Dictionaries, Ontologies and More).

Challenges of Interoperability

Institutions and projects frequently develop their own customized metadata. This is often done for compelling reasons, notably that learning and implementing metadata standards is time consuming, and generic metadata approaches rarely fill every requirement of a particular project.  While understandable, this heterogeneity reduces interoperability. When local customization is required, adopting controlled vocabularies and crosswalking between custom metadata structures and one or more metadata standards, though often imperfect, can increase interoperability. Crosswalking is the process of defining which elements in one set of metadata are equivalent to, or related to, elements in another standard or set of metadata.

Suggested Citation

Neiswender, C., Montgomery, E. 2010. "Introduction to Metadata Interoperability." In The MMI Guides: Navigating the World of Marine Metadata. Accessed October 20, 2020.