What is a Data Catalog?

A data catalog is a fully managed inventory of data entities. A catalog provides a list of all the organization’s available data sources along with descriptions of the content and structure of each source. It helps an organization see what types of information it has, who owns it, where the information comes from (data lineage), how often it’s updated, where it’s stored, how it can be used, how it’s related to other forms of data, and more.

A data catalog allows organizations to discover and collaborate on data, as well as find and understand the meaning of specific data elements. In an enterprise cloud setting, data catalog's often use machine learning to help you categorize, enrich, and search your data assets so you can get more value from your data.

What are the benefits of a data catalog?

Data is useless unless you have a way to discover it. In a modern business environment with multiple databases and distributed systems, keeping track of all that information manually is time-consuming and error-prone.

A data catalog is a metadata management system that helps data professionals and business users find the right data, understand its context, and use it confidently to make better decisions.

Data catalogs provide a single source of truth that data analysts can turn to when they need to access and understand the meaning of specific datasets.

What does a data catalog look like?

A well-run data catalog functions like a library: you don't have to know what books are in the library or where they are located in order to find them. You just need to know how to use the card catalog, which contains information about every book in the library — including the title, author, publication date, genre, location, and so on.

In the context of data, the "books" would be pieces of data, and understand how this data is tagged and the metadata related to it is essential to being able to use it. It should have an nventory of all relevant datasets with detailed descriptions of each one (e.g., their purpose, quality level, source location), plus machine-assisted analysis that lets you assess how well those datasets fit your needs.

Do I need a data catalog?

Data catalogs are different from other types of metadata management tools in that they rely on AI technologies, such as machine learning and natural language processing, to automate the collection, organization and enrichment of metadata. A data catalog takes the burden off of users by providing them with a single point of reference for information about all their organization's data assets.

Data catalogs can be useful for three main reasons:

  • They automate part of the management and organization process, eliminating the possibility for human error and freeing up capacity within a data organization.
  • They empower both the data organization (data creators) themselves, and the people interacting with data from outside the data organization (data consumers).
  • They make analyzing data easier. This results in better informed business decisions, and done so with less effort.

Users need to access data quickly. Data is increasingly important in today's business environment. However, it's also becoming more complex as organizations collect large amounts of data from multiple sources -- both internal and external -- and in different formats. Data catalogs can help users find the exact piece of data they need quickly so they can spend more time analyzing it rather than searching for it.

What is the value of a data catalog?

It's difficult to find the correct version of a dataset or ensure its quality. In an enterprise setting, many people may have access to the same piece of data -- even if they're not authorized to do so -- which can lead to confusion about which version is most current or accurate.

If you’re an analyst, data catalogs are useful because they help you use the right data for the right purpose. You can look up a certain type of data and see all the relevant sources so you can choose what to use for the job at hand.

Data catalogs also make it easier for anyone to contribute to the company’s data resources. If someone creates a new report or database, they can add it to the catalog so colleagues can find it and use it later on.

It also means that if you’re working with external organizations, such as governments or NGOs, who want access to company information, you can share your catalog with them for easy access to what they need.