A useful definition of metadata is contained in the publication of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), called Understanding Metadata:
Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information.Metadata can be either structural or descriptive. I believe here, we are talking about structural metadata or the design and specifications of data structures, not the particular content of the individual instances of application data. In this sense the description of the Meta-genealogy becomes the basis for standardization, not the other way around. If we wait for some agreement on standardization, we will never obtain the objective of providing an accommodating structural metadata.
I think a simple example helps to start the concept of the difficulty of talking about standards without the underlying structural metadata. Nearly all of the currently available genealogical database programs use a naming structure that has spaces for a surname and a given or first name. Some of the programs resolve the issue of a middle name by labeling the first data entry blank as "First Names." In addition, many of the programs provide places for a prefix or title and a suffix or other name. So what do you do with a name such as
Raul Ortega Rodriguez
Do you have a separate version of the program with an accommodation for Spanish surnames or do you simply ignore the problem and provide a "one size fits all" solution based on English surname patterns? This example may be trivial, but the idea is to define a metaname field that will contain every instance of naming practices in every kinship structure. To see why this this is necessary, simply ask this question about the name above: What is the surname? Which of the two names is the one a genealogist would need to search on? Is the answer both names?
In this sense, a workable metadata approach to genealogy would be culturally neutral. Avery interesting attempt at creating such a system is that developed by the commentator, Tony Proctor, on his website http://www.familyhistorydata.parallaxview.co/home where he is developing the STEMMA data model.
However, I am not just talking about a system that allows developers to implement cross-cultural data transfers, I believe we need to develop a more fundamental way of looking at the larger world wide context of creating a universal family tree structure. Not in the sense that we create a centralized collection but allowing the relationships between the data components to be restructured through continuous adaptation to additional data. The closest structure that currently reflects this ability is wiki-based. But even wiki-based systems can bog down in cultural specific network connections.
The beginning of a discussion in this regard should consider some of what has already been accomplished with large online databases. For a review of the current status see the following:
Hillmann, Diane I., and Elaine L. Westbrooks. Metadata in Practice. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004.
You can see from the date of the book, that these ideas are not necessarily new or innovative.
Another example of the need for metadata in the area of genealogy is the proliferation of online family trees allowing users to upload images. Unfortunately, other than linking the image to an individual or individuals in a family tree, there is no accompanying data about the provenance of the photo or image.
I suggest that this type of development needs to begin on the international level in the genealogical community and if is already in progress, I suggest it needs a higher profile.