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Unstructured Data = Letters in a Bucket?

August 9, 2011 1 comment

Unstructured Data – The Myth

There’s a lot of noise about “structured” and “unstructured” data. But what is this “unstructured data” beast we keep hearing about?

It’s almost impossible to see a presentation from a search or ECM or eDiscovery vendor who doesn’t talk about how “80% of a corporations data is unstructured.” Aside from the fact that much of this data is garbage (see my earlier postings), is it really fair to call it unstructured?

Personally I hate the descriptor “unstructured content.” When I hear it,all I can think of is letters spilling out of a bucket – no rhyme or reason to the flow or sense to be made (unless you’re Edward Lorenz).

What we so often call unstructured content really has lots of structure that can be used and leveraged for many types of text analytics purposes.

Explicit Metadata

Every file system object has metadata attributes associated to it. This is explicit metadata which search vendors have used for years to help make content findability more successful. Things like “name,” “date,” “filetype” are examples of explicit metadata.

Since the dawn of computers, explicit metadata has been used to help computers store information, and users to find it.

Implied Metadata

This is metadata that can be defined or extracted from the content of objects in file systems. Office documents have a Properties sheet with information such as “last accessed date,” “author, and “word count.” Music files often store album information and song length.

Even deeper, within many content objects we can identify and extract things like credit card numbers, phone numbers, dates, or names. This type of entity identification and extraction enables a rich metadata view into content – something only possible because there’s _structure_ not random letters.

So What?

It’s unfair to call an email or Word document “unstructured.” I prefer the generic “content” because when you really look, there’s rich structure that can be exploited by a business. Companies can use “last accessed date” to support RM retention and disposition activities, or identification of credit card numbers to ensure proper PII strategy adherence.

Thankfully, there’s no such thing as unstructured data. Otherwise the companies I work with wouldn’t be able to use the explicit and implied metadata, and rich object structure of content in their content analytics strategies.

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