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GCN : April 2014
IN SOFTWARE engineering, code refactoring is the pro- cess of improving the internal design of source code to make it more readable, reus- able and simpler. Refactoring is not just restricted to source code but can also be used on data to improve its informa- tion content. The Food and Drug Ad- ministration and First Lady Michelle Obama recently en- gaged in a kind of "informa- tion refactoring" to increase the readability, accuracy and information content of food labels. The proposed changes would increase the font size for the total calorie count per serving, increase the serving size to a more re- alistic quantity and provide additional information on added sugars. While the food industry may not agree with all of these changes (and are sure to fight a few of them), it is great to see the FDA and the First Lady on the front lines of improving the utility of infor- mation provided to consum- ers. To me, they seem to get the di erence between data and information (information being data that is shaped to be useful to its consumers). All government agencies should follow the FDA s lead and look for opportunities to refactor their data to increase its information content to specific consumers. In my book, "Information As Product," I used a can of food as an analogy for the requirements of a good infor- mation product. Think about the components of a physical product, in this case a can of food, in a grocery store. The total product consists of the food inside the can, the metal packaging, the food label, placement on a shelf, signs on shelves and aisles, the grocery store building and eventually the advertis- ing the grocery store sends to consumers. Now, let s map those to see how we create an information product. The food itself is the content and content struc- ture (raw data). Everything beyond that is metadata and meta-metadata. The packag- ing refers to how we organize data into a collection or package of related data. The food label is analogous to key metadata that describes sa- lient characteristics to a gen- eral consumer. Of course, the better the marketers know the consumers the more they can tailor a label to a specific segment of consumers. So, know your consumer! Storing all these information labels is akin to the creation of a metadata catalog. The product aisles and signs are akin to contextual metadata that helps explain where the product came from and where it fits into a larger ecosystem (another key tech- nique for this is the creation of taxonomies or categoriza- tion schemes). Finally, advertising is a type of push notification to help consumers discover products that may interest them. The point of this is that we can craft e ective informa- tion products by examin- ing and understanding the construction and marketing of physical products. So, while data architects can take away valuable lessons from food labeling and marketing, the oppo- site is also true. How can food labels be improved by leveraging IT innovations like the Web, linked data and metadata techniques? One key lesson from the Web is that information is not an island; the same rule should apply to food labels. Informa- tion should not stop at the physical product. By adding a QR code or mapping existing bar codes to a website, the physical objects can link to virtual information so that a consumer can get more de- tails, corroboration or even critical information beyond the data on the label. Further, that virtual infor- mation link could provide additional data about the quality processes, date and place of last inspection to increase consumer trust in the product. Finally, we should have a database of all food labels (or a data set posted to data.gov) so that application develop- ers can create consumer- based applications that exploit that information. The FDA already has a database of drug labels, and the same concept should be implemented for food labels. Taking a cue from the FDA and First Lady s work on food labels, government IT manag- ers should re-examine their data assets and discover new opportunities for information refactoring. It s a low-cost mission multiplier that can improve the productivity of employees, end-users and citizens. • --- Michael C. Daconta is vice president of advanced technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former metadata program manager for the Homeland Security Department. WHAT DATA ARCHITECTS CAN LEARN ABOUT INFO CONTENT FROM FOOD LABELS REALITY CHECK BY MICHAEL DACONTA All government agencies should follow the FDA's lead and look for opportunities to refactor their data to increase its information content to specific consumers. GCN APRIL 2014 • GCN.COM 19