Recontextualization of metadata – part 2: databases

In a previous post, I asked the question under which circumstances descriptors can be powerful for findability. The classical example are databases – the attributes to the objects are nothing else but descriptors, and highly standardized ones at that. The database itself delivers the context for the objects it contains: it is made expressly for certain data and for a certain reason, thus providing clear and reliable context.

But if describing objects in a consistent way is such a drag, why would anyone bother to do it? Or to put it the other way round: Is this a way to make structuring information more intuitive, simple and pleasurable to use?

Let’s take a more detailed look at the first part of the question: Why does anyone bother about describing objects in a database? Because objects in databases are similar to each other and detailed descriptions of the objects makes them comparable. In a database for flights, e.g. Kayak, you can compare all flights with a common origin and destination, e.g. from Amsterdam to Zurich, or you might want to find out how far 1000 Swiss francs could get you (though I haven’t yet seen this implemented). The drive for providers of databases or vertical search engines to make the effort of describing objects is, on the one hand, to offer the largest range of data, and on the other hand, to make them as easily comparable as possible to meet consumers’ needs.

Flight Amsterdam - Zurich on kayak.com

Flight Amsterdam - Zurich on kayak.com

Concerning the second part of the question, do databases make structuring information more intuitive, simple and pleasurable to use? The answer is no. Anyone who has ever been involved in aggregating structured data from different sources will tell you what back-breaking work it is. This even holds true for highly standardized environments as international aviation. The relative homogeneity of the data described in a database may make the task of consistent description simpler, but the drawback is that databases are rigid. Conventions need to be agreed on to make consistent description possible, and they reduce the objects to the chosen characteristics.

The rigidity of databases means they are not well adapted to change. This is very well argued by Hank Williams in his post The Death of the Relational Database (why an eloquent writer would choose the title Why does everything suck? for his blog is beyond a square like myself, but it’s worth the read):

As long as you don’t want to radically change or expand the scope of what you are doing, relational databases are great. But knowledge is an ever-expanding universe of objects and relationships between them. The relational database doesn’t handle that use case very well.

In my last post as well as in this one, I argued that the consistent use of descriptors is only possible in very tight limits and that in order to take complexity – and change – into account, more flexible concepts are necessary. Is the Semantic Web an answer to that? As fascinating as the prospect sounds, is it really possible to detach relations from their context?  The third and final part of this series shall look into this.

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