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Aircraft IT Operations - April/May 2013

Author: Paul Saunders
This article appears in Issue 9: the April/May 2013 edition of the Aircraft IT Operations eJournal. For your own free subscription to the eJournal - click on 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' for full details.

Are we ready for metadata? And what is it anyway?

Paul Saunders Column: The world according to IT and me..

A good friend of mine has set himself a goal to rid the world of what he calls “dumb PDFs”. He would like to see a future where the aircraft cockpit is not just paperless, but the data and content that we are creating and consuming is augmented by a layer of metadata that provides a wealth of additional information and drives smart functionality in the cockpit of the future. I was joking with my friend only the other day that his thinking is waaaay ahead of many airlines with whom I work. A lot of airlines still have men with little white vans managing the delivery of paper document updates by hand.

Metadata is often described as ‘data about data’ or ‘content about content’ and although these descriptions are a little over simplistic they are explanations that will suffice for most discussions. Metadata, I find, is more easily described by using an example with which most of us will be familiar. Consider a status update that you make on Facebook…

The status update will include text that you post plus there will be some sort of user identifier to link the post to your timeline and, of course, any attached content such as images and other rich media. Behind the visible data that makes up your timeline entry there will also be a layer of metadata which is automatically gathered. In addition to your update, Facebook wants to know your location, the date and time of your update, the device you used and so on. This is all captured automatically (according to your privacy settings) and by doing so Facebook is able to build a very accurate picture of its users, their likes and behaviour: this is of great value to advertisers. Previously this kind of data could only be captured by people with clipboards carrying out surveys.

I foresee a time where interaction with systems is kept to a bare minimum, where connected metadata drives context to our content. Imagine an EFB where you don’t need to enter any parameters to calculate your take-off performance. How cool would it be if your device automatically sensed what aircraft you were on the moment you stepped on board and filtered all of your content without you having to do a thing? Or imagine if the data that the airline already knew about your flight had been preloaded to your systems and forms?

These micro-improvements are all possible right now with connected aircraft and eco-systems where metadata drives context to our content. However, back in the world as it is today, these ideas remain a science fiction pipedream because not enough people see the benefit of replacing systems and procedures that have remained largely unchanged during my lifetime. It’s true that the benefits that these improvements bring can only be measured in seconds per flight, but the cost of developing the necessary infrastructure is astronomical. It depresses me to think that we’re stuck with paper and dumb PDFs for a few more years at least.

But wait a minute. Is it really cheaper to distribute paper than data in 2013?

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