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Digital Asset Management

November 14, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of the challenges of a busy production house is keeping track of all the footage and other assets created or captured as part of the projects underway.  The solution lies with digital asset management (DAM), a toolset designed to identify and track the assets throughout their lifecycle.  It’s gotten to the point where the DAM universe now has its own conferences – the conference in NY just happened in September, though I unfortunately had to miss it.

Many organizations have bought or developed extensive DAM systems to make certain they can access their materials quickly and efficiently.  I heard a gentleman from CNN at the Content & Communications World expo in NYC last month describing their system, and it took them 10 or more years to develop (more on their system later).  Needless to say most of us are not CNN, and probably don’t have ten years to figure it out, so I’m going to outline some of the main concerns here.   Full disclosure – my own organization doesn’t yet have a DAM system, so most of my thoughts are based on research and past experience with other asset management.The reason an organization producing any serious level of content needs a DAM system is because these assets are valuable.  You’ve spent an enormous amount of time and effort collecting, editing, and producing this content, and you need to be able to store and manage that data.  There’s gold in them thar assets, but you won’t be able to use them for future needs if you can’t find the stuff.  So you need a way to catalog, store, manage, and retrieve those assets, and usually you need to provide access to some combination of asset creators, editors, reviewers, approvers, and end users.

These complex needs underscore one of the first things we’ve learned about DAM during our planning process.  DAM turns out to be about a lot more than just file storage and retrieval, it’s deeply integrated with the overall production workflow of the organization.  The asset management in effect becomes a layer added onto the production process from content creation to final publication.  Treating asset management in a vacuum without considering how your organization works and how it can help the assets migrate through the system is likely to lead to a poorly designed add-on to a workflow.

The second issue we’ve had to deal with is the mixed needs of our department.  As a fully featured studio, we’re handling a wide variety of material, but primarily we have to deal with video and still images.  Our ideal DAM system will handle both equally well.  The challenge we’ve identified is that most of the commercial systems available will handle one type or the other, but not both.  One vendor has suggested a tool called CatDV to us, and that may yet prove to meet our needs.  If it doesn’t, we’re going to have to find a way to track assets through a series of tools, and that will inevitably lead to complications.  The lesson here is clear – make sure you identify everything you’re trying to accomplish before you settle on a product.

Another concern here is critical – you must understand that the purchase of a system is the least of the steps to a working DAM system.  All of the effort to catalog your data is manual – each asset has to be associated with metadata and categories that provide the meat for the search and retrieval of assets at a later point.  For one thing, that means an enormous level of effort to identify and tag assets, especially if you decide to backfill with older material.  For another, the data entry process becomes the singlemost critical aspect of your planning.

Here’s where my odd path from the archives to the video world is incredibly useful.  I spent the first 6-7 years of my working life focusing largely on the acquisition, cataloging, and retrieval of data.  Granted it was more likely to be documentary rather than video, but the format is irrelevant – the methods and concepts are identical.

If you remember nothing else, remember the term Controlled Vocabulary.  It refers to the idea that you want as much as possible to force your data entry to conform to specific terms, and reduce the margin of data entry error as much as you can.  A controlled vocabulary ensures you see the same subject, item, name or other term exactly the same each time.  You want it to appear as Wayne, John, not John Wayne, not the Duke, not Marion Michael Morrison – and you don’t want to give your data entry team an opportunity to get creative.  The reason is obvious – when your users are looking later, you want them to find everything the same way so they find it all.

I mentioned earlier the CNN DAM system, and after the presentation was over I had a chance to ask the speaker about their metadata input.  They’ve got hundreds or thousands of people out in the field shooting content, uploading it to the system – how on earth do they ensure that the titling & keywords of all those assets are controlled.  His answer explains why it took so long to get the system to where it is.  They’ve built algorithms into the system that recognize critical terms so they are findable by virtually anyone.  On top of that they have a team of librarians responsible for maintaining the integrity of the system, and adding any new terms as needed.  Needless to say most of us don’t have those resources, but it gives you a sense of how seriously they take their asset management.

Tools like required fields, dropdown lists of acceptable terms, and a well-trained data entry staff make an enormous difference in the final product.  It’s also why the most critical work of any DAM system is not tool selection, but the advanced planning of the metadata that will drive the system.  If you don’t sit down and map your data fields correctly you are asking for a world of trouble.  You’ll spend an enormous amount of money and energy on garbage in, garbage out.  The DAM system is incredibly valuable for managing assets, but it’s only as good as the metadata you put into it.

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