Reducing Digital Asset Volumes And Cataloguing Them More Efficiently

Romney Whitehead, has written an article Curation Before Creation, on her own Borrowed Insight blog where she discusses how the net overhead of managing media has not really diminished with the introduction of digital media, but has merely transferred from one type of activity to another.  To illustrate this she uses some examples from a family member who had a catalogue of 200 images as well as a previous job involving transparencies (non-digital stills) and contrasts this with her current job which requires the management of millions of digital assets.  She notes that while the asset logistics might have been automated as a consequence of using digital media, the process of applying metadata and rights management still adds a considerable amount of time required for each asset:

Looking at this, part of me thinks that perhaps we have just swapped one overhead for another. The packaging up and returning of hard copies of images has been changed into the adding of metadata to creative content, and the overhead of storing images and videos which will never be used or looked at again. It would be an interesting exercise to assess the cost of this, the manpower and storage overhead if 30% of your assets in your DAM are gathering virtual dust.” [Read More]

I would agree with Romney’s observations and the effects seems to be a universal characteristic of all digital technology in general (and maybe not just the digital kind) which is like some kind of ‘be careful what you wish for’ type of proposition where any efficiency improvement generated as a result of one innovation generates a whole series of new problems that fresh solutions are required for.   With all this time-saving technology to hand, can anyone currently in full-time employment say they have a lot more free time on their hands than they did ten years ago?

Leaving aside the philosophical discussion, one of the other key themes of the article is that a large proportion of the digital assets stored in DAM systems are never used and they are, therefore, effectively a waste of resources. As well as the cataloguing activity, there is the less visible use of IT facilities like server processing, storage and bandwidth also.

Romney suggests that to reduce the inefficient behaviour that digital asset origination technologies encourage, she is going to curate more and create less with the intention of improving the quality (and therefore the average value of all assets within a given repository).  My first thought with this was that while a laudable objective, it is difficult to see widespread adoption of similar policies by others.  To understand the reasoning behind her point, you need to have been directly involved with managing a collection of digital assets and have first-hand experience of needing to catalogue them (many of which should not have made it off the storage card of a camera or other digital capture device to start with).  This discussion has some similarities with the one about creative marketing operations and digital media supply chains a few weeks ago in that what asset originators offer might be of an equivalent or higher value than just the efficient management of media logistics.

If someone generates 200 mostly pointless photos but five of the set are brilliant and perfect for a given campaign or other usage, someone else still has to sift through the whole lot to check them (and therefore the majority of the overhead has then already been incurred).  Digital assets are not commodities and their value fluctuates over time and according to context.  In Peter Krogh’s book DAM For Photographers, there is a shot of the New York Trade Center with an American flag to one side which he points out has acquired a far greater level of poignancy and significance than when it was originally taken.  The problem with media like photos or videos is you cannot know up-front how useful they are likely to be, this is one of the key reasons why most of the quantitative ROI models for DAM break down under a fairly modest amount of scrutiny.

Having considered Romney’s point more carefully, I can see that initiating a policy of reducing the volume of assets being originated might assist to help shave percentages off the overall time (and therefore cost) of managing collections of digital assets.  The fact that the volume of digital assets generated is going to increase exponentially for an indefinite period is not disputed, but that does not mean taking any opportunity to flatten the curve is not a good idea and those that do might find the overall quality of their collections to be higher than anyone who has just allowed any asset to be accepted into their DAM.

I suspect that the those organisations whose core business is not already strongly associated with digital asset management will combine a policy like the one Romney has described with an asset catalogue stratification strategy.  So as well as encouraging asset suppliers to think before they dispatch hard drives full of largely duplicated shots to be ingested, some kind of grading system is used where what is submitted is allocated to a given collection and those of a perceived higher value get more cataloguing attention than others.  This is likely to dovetail with automated cataloguing so assets of a lower value will increasingly be filed using automated techniques to save time and money, on the understanding that a given obscure asset which has suddenly become more valuable than was once believed could eventually be located again, even though it might take some time to actually do it.  I still don’t rate those examples of automated metadata generation that I have seen very highly, but I can see why commercial pressures might need the number of human-catalogued assets to be more restricted and that is where their role might increase.

I believe this article is indicative of a wider issue which has yet to be properly acknowledged in DAM circles.  As well as demand for and volumes of assets increasing, DAM users will have to start thinking more carefully about what and how they place digital assets into their media repositories to get the best value out of their not inconsiderable investments into them.

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