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USGS Data Management

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U.S. Geological Survey Data Lifecycle Diagram Plan Acquire Preserve Publish/Share Manage Quality Describe (Metadata, Documentation) Backup & Secure The USGS Science Data Lifecycle


Metadata describe information about a dataset, such that a dataset can be understood, re-used, and integrated with other datasets. Information described in a metadata record includes where the data were collected, who is responsible for the dataset, why the dataset was created, and how the data are organized. Metadata generally follow a standard format, making it easier to compare datasets and to transfer files electronically.

Why Do We Need Metadata?

Key Points

  • Metadata create longevity for data.
  • Use metadata to understand and re-use data.
  • Access to searchable metadata helps avoid data duplication and reduces workload.
  • Metadata enables the sharing of reliable information.
  • Metadata transcend people and time.
  • Data are not complete without a metadata record.
  • Identify new partnership opportunities when metadata are shared.
  • Ensure organizational investment in data.
  • Use mandated Federal metadata standards (see Executive Order 12906).
  • Keep all documentation associated with your data.

Metadata are crucial for any potential use or reuse of data; no one can responsibly re-use or interpret data without accompanying metadata that explains how the dataset was created, why, where it is geographically located, and details about the structure and meaning of the data.

There are many uses for metadata, even beyond the simple discovery of datasets. Metadata can be used for understanding data, analysis and synthesis, maintaining longevity of a dataset for an organization, tracking the progress of a research project, and demonstrating the return on investment for research at an institution.

The creation of metadata is not solely performed for geospatial data. For example a biological data spreadsheet containing species occurrence information can easily be documented by metadata.

For more information about metadata see Metadata in Plain Language.
For more information about metadata as it pertains to the USGS data release process, visit Metadata for Scientific Data FAQs.

How to create a metadata record:

  1. Getting started
  2. Creating metadata records
  3. Validating metadata records
  4. My Metadata is created, whatís next?

1. Getting started

Collect content for the metadata record

Metadata answer questions about the data or collections, which may include location information, definitions for column headers in the data, and reasons the data were collected. Metadata describe the Who, What, Where, When, and How. Hereís a helpful document to help you get started:

  • Metadata Questionnaire [PDF]: This document provides a set of questions about your research that can help you get your content organized for the metadata record. There are several metadata tools recommended below that will walk you through creation of the content needed for the record.

What does a metadata record look like?

Federal agencies are mandated by Executive Order 12906 to use metadata standards endorsed by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC). An approved and widely used standard is the Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata (CSDGM) and its biological extension called the Biological Data Profile. A transition to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) series of standards (19115, 19115-2, 19139 etc) is currently occurring, the adoption of which is also endorsed by the FGDC. Both CSDGM and ISO require metadata to be formatted in Extensible Markup Language (.xml). For more information about XML, see the section entitled Advanced Users: Create, edit, and/or validate metadata records directly in XML.

FGDC CSDGM Standard Metadata Examples Arrow pointing down to indicate expanding text
FGDC CSDGM Standard Metadata Examples Arrow pointing down to indicate collasping text
Below are examples of metadata records that describe various information products from datasets to systems or collections. View the metadata record in its native XML code or with a stylesheet applied to the XML to be more human readable.
FGDC ISO Standard Metadata Example Arrow pointing down to indicate expanding text
FGDC ISO Standard Metadata Example Arrow pointing down to indicate collasping text
Below is an example of a metadata record in ISO 19115-2.
  • Alaska Data Integration Working Group (ADIwg) [XML] - Note this record is a general test record that contains only certain sections of the ISO standard.

2. Creating metadata records

Now that you have gathered content for your metadata record, you are ready to create the actual metadata file. The following free tools create and edit metadata:

FGDC CSDGM Standard Metadata Tools Arrow pointing down to indicate expanding text
FGDC CSDGM Standard Metadata Tools Arrow pointing down to indicate collasping text
The tools are free, export FGDC-CSDGM in XML, and represent typical USGS workflows described in this website. For a wider selection of tools see the FGDC Metadata Tools.
  • USGS Online Metadata Editor (OME) - (free) An online metadata editor for creating FGDC CSDGM by answering questions about your data. Login to start new records or upload and edit existing ones. Save completed or ongoing records to the tool or directly to your desktop. Easy to use and best for biological and non-biological datasets. The tool is currently only available to USGS staff.
  • USGS Metadata Wizard - (free) An Easy-to-Use Tool for Creating FGDC-CSDGM Metadata for Geospatial Datasets in ESRI ArcGIS Desktop. The tool is a Python toolbox for ESRI ArcDesktop that ingests geospatial files and through a semi-automated workflow, creates and updates metadata records in ESRIís 10.x software. Best for geospatial data (e.g. raster, shapefiles) and tabular data (e.g. ESRI geodatabase or Database File). To use the tool with Excel spreadsheets (.xlsx) or Comma Separated Values (.csv) follow steps for Converting [PDF] before using the tool.
  • USGS TKME - (free) A USGS Windows platform tool that conforms to the FGDC-CSDGM which can be configured for Biological Data Profile and other extensions. The software program is closely aligned with Metadata Parser (MP), and is multi-lingual - it can be configured for French and Spanish.
  • USDA Metavist - (free) A desktop metadata editor for FGDC-CSDGM for Geospatial Metadata. Includes the Biological Data Profile (version 1.6 recommended). Produced and maintained by the USDA Forest Service.
  • NOAA Mermaid (Metadata Enterprise Resource Management Aid) - (free) An online metadata editor supporting the FGDC-CSDGM with the Biological Data Profile, the Shoreline Profile, and the Remote Sensing Extension, Ecological Metadata Language, and Machine-readable Cataloging (MARC).
  • Microsoft XML Notepad - (free) A simple intuitive user interface for browsing and editing XML documents. Does not automatically produce FGDC-CSDGM records but allows easy editing and validating of existing metadata records. See Advanced Users below for a more indepth guide to using this tool.
FGDC ISO Standard Metadata Tools Arrow pointing down to indicate expanding text
FGDC ISO Standard Metadata Tools Arrow pointing down to indicate collasping text
At this time, ISO metadata creation and editor tools are still maturing. For a list of ISO tools, refer to FGDC ISO Metadata Editor Review.

Advanced Users: Create, edit, and/or validate metadata records directly in XML

The following are best practices that will increase the effectiveness and impact of your metadata record.

Best Practices for Metadata Record Creation

  • Get organized: Writing good metadata begins with being organized.
    • Organization seems like a logical step, but many choose to start writing a metadata record before having all of the necessary information. It makes a difference to stop, get organized, and make a plan. Begin by gathering all of your information together, especially if multiple people have the information that you need.
  • Use information that is already developed. Information needed for high-quality metadata records is often already written.
    • Re-use text written for grant or funding proposals; e.g., abstract, purpose, location of data collection, etc.
    • A data dictionary created during data collection and processing can be referenced in the metadata, so have that available to include in your record.
  • Titles: Choose a title for your dataset that incorporates who, what, where, why, and scale.
    • Example: Greater Yellowstone Rivers from 1:126,700 U.S. Forest Service Visitor Maps (1961-1983)
      • Greater Yellowstone (where)
      • Rivers (what)
      • from 1:126,700 (scale)
      • U.S. Forest Service (who)
      • Visitor Maps (1961-1983) (when)
  • Writing your Metadata:
    • Choose keywords wisely: Consider all of the possible interpretations of your word choices and use a thesaurus to add descriptive terms you may not have otherwise selected.
    • Include as many details as you can in the record so that readers can surmise what is in your data before they go further.
  • Review: review your metadata for completeness and accuracy.
    • It is a good practice to ask someone else to read your metadata. Ideally, another person unfamiliar with the project is able to review your metadata record objectively.
  • Check for clarity and omissions. Your metadata records will live for a long time.
  • Systems Level Applications or Collections [PDF] - a set of best practices for creating metadata for large data systems and/or describing "collections" of datasets.

3. Validating metadata records

Congratulations! Now that you have created your metadata record, you are ready to validate the file. It is necessary to validate your record to ensure if the record has been created properly and all required elements have been filled in.

Please note that many metadata creation and editing tools (such as OME, Metadata Wizard, Mermaid) validate automatically so secondary validation may not be necessary.

Validating a metadata record

Validation compares the FGDC CSDGM standardís schema to the XML output to ensure the record conforms with the structure of the standard. See best practices for Checking Metadata with Data [PDF].

Tools for validating Metadata:

  • USGS Metadata Parser - - (free) This is a USGS metadata quality control and output configuration tool. It acts as a compiler to parse formal metadata, checking the syntax against the FGDC-CSDGM. It generates output suitable for viewing with a Web browser or text editor and is multi-lingual (French and Spanish). It can be configured for the Biological Data Profile and other extensions. Advanced Users: Running Metadata Parser (MP) from the Command Line window [PDF].
  • Microsoft XML Notepad - (free) The tool offers the ability to validate records but requires a necessary schema package. See Advanced Users to Validate metadata.

4. My Metadata is created, whatís next?

  1. USGS policy will require a review of the data and metadata intended for release. The Data Release Team of the Community for Data Integration (CDI) Data Management Working Group, developed guidance for data and metadata review.
  2. A best practice is to package your data and metadata together whenever possible since the metadata record is critical to understanding the data. This is commonly achieved through the use of a zip file (.zip) which contains the metadata and data files.
  3. Work with your Program or Center to identify how metadata should be disseminated. Sharing metadata improves discoverability, access, and reuse of the data. The USGS Science Data Catalog provides a single point for USGS to serve metadata to,, OMB, geoplatform etc. and is the USGS approved mechanism for doing so. For more information about data and metadata release, visit Publish and Share.

Advanced Users: Create, edit, and/or validate metadata records directly in XML

To create, edit, and/or validate metadata records directly in XML code, use an XML editor such as the Microsoft XML Notepad - (free):

What the U.S. Geological Survey Manual Says:

The USGS Instructional Memorandum IM OSQI 2015-2 Fundamental Science Practices: Metadata for Scientific Data, Software, and Other Information Products discusses metadata requirements for data products.

Policy: Metadata must accompany all USGS scientific data, software, and other information products approved for release. The requirement for metadata applies to all scientific data, prior to approval for release. This includes geospatial and non-geospatial datasets, databases, and Web data services that are created, collected, or compiled by USGS employees, volunteers, contractors, or data from other sources that are subsequently made part of a USGS dataset, database, or service.

Metadata records for datasets and databases must comply with one of the following FGDC standards: FGDC Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata or the International Organization for Standardization suite of standards (refer to

The USGS Instructional Memorandum IM OSQI 2015-3 Fundamental Science Practices: Review and Approval of Scientific Data for Release discusses when metadata requirements apply and when a metadata review is required.

Policy: Approved data must comply with the metadata policy (refer to IM OSQI 2015-2), and the metadata must accompany the data approved for release when released.

USGS releases both approved and provisional data. Until they are approved, data are considered provisional or preliminary. Provisional or preliminary data released to the public are not required to meet the metadata requirements of IM OSQI 2015-2.

Recommended Reading


  • Chatfield, T., Selbach, R. February, 2011. Data Management for Data Stewards. Data Management Training Workshop. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
  • DataONE education modules. Accessed June 13, 2012.

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