Survey data: organisation and metadata requirements

Habitat mapping surveys generate very large volumes of data which need careful organisation and management.  Additionally, surveys typically employ multiple techniques and surveyors, adding to the complexity of tracking what data has been collected, how, when, where, why, by whom and how it all interrelates.  Once a survey programme has been completed, the data may be passed to other people or organisations for processing, analysis and storage.  It is important that key information is recorded at the time of the survey, in a structured manner so its subsequent processing and interpretation are not hampered by gaps in survey detail.  It is not good enough to rely on the memory of individuals as to how each piece of data were collected!
Information describing data are known as metadata.  There are three main aspects to consider when recording survey metadata:
  • How should the survey data be organised?
Management of multiple techniques, people, places, dates and samples so that their relationship to each other is properly documented.  It is not much use taking a photograph of a grab sample if, at a later date, you cannot remember which photograph relates to which sample.
  • What information should be recorded?
Recorded data need to ensure that future users of the data know how it was collected, when, where, why, by whom, to what standards and how it has been processed or manipulated.  This is vital information about the provenance of the data that allows its users to know what it is suitable for (or more importantly what it is not suitable for.  Consideration needs to be given to use of the data beyond the scope of the study, in national and international data archives.  Was a multibeam dataset collected to international hydrographic standards to enable its use for navigational charts?  Can I integrate grab sample datasets without knowing what sieve size was used?
  • How should the data be stored?
Using an appropriate medium to store the data and ensuring it is correctly labelled will ensure they are readily usable in the future, will not deteriorate over time and may be easily integrated with similar data from other sources.  Data without proper labelling (showing when and where they were collected) are expensive data that have little or no value in the future.
The MESH Guide provides advice on general issues relating to survey data management, offering a structure for organising data during a survey and provides recommended metadata fields for each type of technique employed.

All material variously copyrighted by MESH project partners 2004-2010

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