Working with files

Aims and objectives

This module will:

  • provide guidance and information on managing data and how this can impact and support your studies
  • explore the importance of metadata in the digital world
  • examine tools to improve productivity

After completing this module, you will be able to:

  • identify various file types and distinguish their usage
  • apply file management conventions, such as folder structure and version control
  • create storage and backup plans

4. Metadata

Metadata provides the descriptive, structural and administrative information necessary to effectively access and utilise digital information objects.

(Stevens, 2015)

Metadata is data about data. Metadata incorporates a number of details about files that describe the data and improve its discoverability. In Australia, there is a telecommunications data retention scheme that outlines what metadata telecommunication companies in Australia must keep and for how long. When this scheme was first introduced, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott described metadata as "It's not the content of the letter, it's what's on the envelope". 

Examples of metadata:


When examining documents, we can use metadata to determine who created these documents and when they were created. For example, we can examine a document's metadata to see information such as:

  • when it was created
  • when it was modified
  • who owns the document
  • who created the document
Screenshot of metadata from a PDF document.


You can examine the metadata of images to see when the image was taken, what device was used to take the image and if the device had GPS turned on, where that picture was taken. Below is a picture of a bird near a lake. With the raw image file we can inspect the metadata by opening the file properties and find out exactly where this image was taken. The image metadata provides the longitude and latitude that you can search for using Google Maps. For more information on how to use coordinates in Google Maps see their help page.

Image metadata used to find location.

Social media

In social media posts, the use of a hashtag is essentially acting as metadata for a post. Adding a hashtag (#UQ) to your tweet, Instagram or other posts creates a topic or tag for that post so that someone searching that platform for ‘UQ’ is more likely to find your post. For more information see the Social Media module.

Data discovery

Metadata is useful for data storage as it improves the discovery of files. It can help you avoid situations where you are not sure which file contains the information you are looking for. The quickest and easiest way to start utilising metadata is through a better file naming strategy.

Metadata and privacy

An individual's metadata can be used to learn a lot about that person's life and habits. When the telecommunications data retention scheme was first introduced in Australia, journalists were making their metadata available to the public to show the amount of information kept in the metadata. The ABC in 2015 published a summary of the findings on journalist Will Ockenden's metadata, What reporter Will Ockenden's metadata reveals about his life.

Four-star General and former Director of the NSA & CIA discussed how powerful an individual's metadata is at The John Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium (YouTube, 1h14m) in 2014.

Google Maps has a feature called "Timeline" that will show you all the locations you have been to in the past. This only shows information if you use location services and Google Maps. Try it out and see how much Google knows about your whereabouts.

Duration:   Approximately 20 minutes

Graduate attributes

Knowledge and skills you can gain to contribute to your Graduate attributes:

 Independence and creativity

 Critical judgement

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