Mobile Enterprise: Metadata To Go: How Your Smartphone Can Help Prevent Information OverloadThat we're all suffering from information overload comes as news to no one. And while some people's eyes glaze over at the mention, metadata can act as the key to reducing the noise.

My last article highlighted what the NSA can teach us about the importance of metadata, in particular how metadata can be used to categorize and later find enterprise documents. But as more work gets done out of the office, another type of metadata is gaining prominence: mobile metadata.

Mobile metadata is information created by a mobile device about its user, its location or about related objects. Mobile devices automatically generate metadata in the course of their everyday operations, so mobile metadata can provide far more utility than just classifying documents. In fact, the NSA subpoenaed a form of mobile metadata from carriers, specifically call detail records (CDRs) to learn about callers and their conversation habits.

For business purposes, auto-generated mobile metadata can define work "contexts," which can be used to reduce information overload and simplify your workday -- by presenting "the right information at the right time." How does this work?

Where Does Mobile Metadata Come From?

The sensors built in to today’s mobile phones inherently generate a wide variety of data. These sensors and their associated systems include chronographs, accelerometers, global positioning (GPS), indoor positioning, near-field communications (NFC) and imaging (i.e. cameras).

The importance of these metadata are related to the fact that information generated by the phone can be aggregated and cross-referenced with other enterprise information, like application data, to expose just the things you need to see "right here, right now." Combining this information in a useful way is contingent on our ability to define smart work contexts.

Context: 'I Know It When I See It'

Context is a difficult concept to nail down. When pressed to define context, many experts fall back on the response given by US Supreme Court Justice Potter when asked to define hard-core pornography: Potter replied: “I shall not … attempt … to define …  and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” This "definition" may have worked for the Supreme Court, but it’s not enough to be useful in business.

A more appropriate definition for context was provided by Anind K. Dey, now an associate professor in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at Carnegie Mellon University:

[Context is] any information that can be used to characterize the situation of a … person, place or object that is considered relevant to the interaction between a user and an application.”

Simply put, context defines a situation which makes certain kinds of information particularly interesting or relevant.

In this regard, mobile devices generate information that, when context is applied, can accurately pinpoint, filter and highlight information for a given time and place. By providing a method for raising up important information snippets and suppressing others, context is our best hope for addressing information overload.

Let’s see how this works in practice.

Mobile Sensors, Metadata, Context

Sensors in today’s mobile devices generate metadata for context engines that identify the information we need right here, right now. Here are some examples of how this works: