I attended BCS-IRSG’s Search Solutions 2012 event in London on 29th November, having missed it for a couple of years, and was reminded of the usefulness of this event for an academic researcher in the field. The industrial speakers, presenting the challenges and rewards of Applied Information Retrieval, keep us abreast of the expectations and ambitions of today’s search user.
Microsoft Research’s Milad Shokouhi gave the opening talk, reminding us of the challenge of the temporal dimension in search and illustrating their use of Time-Series Analysis in detecting and responding to temporal trends. Alex Jaimes, a Senior Research Scientist with Yahoo! Barcelona, followed, arguing the case for placing the human searcher centre-stage in search — insights regarding the context of the user, together with the domain being searched, should dictate the search environment presented. He promoted a new search paradigm — the user discovering (information is pushed towards him), as against the user searching (him pulling information).
This led us neatly to the second session of the day “Putting the User First”, where speakers dwelt on various human aspects of search from the enterprise perspective. Martin White, Managing Director of Intranet Focus Ltd., argued passionately for the investment of companies in a skilled search team. He highlighted the “Information Paradox” — companies when surveyed recognise the critical importance information plays in their success, but rate it 16th in importance of their systems. Emma Bayne, Head of System Development for the National Archives, shared her experience of striving for a very intuitive design to open up their rapidly expanding collections. The resulting Discovery system avails of user tagging and taxonomy-based facet filtering to alleviate the workload of the searcher. Kristian Norling, CTO Findwise, shared with us the findings of a recent industry survey they ran.
The first session of the afternoon entitled “Beyond Keyword Matching: Searching with Taxonomies, Thesauri, Ontologies”, reiterated Emma Bayne’s recognition of the importance of structured knowledge in a closed domain. The message that many of us would take away from the day was that although the “PageRank” paradigm might dominate the WWW, within the enterprise/closed domain structured knowledge sources have an important role to play. Stella Dextre Clarke, Chair ISKO UK, explained that the smaller domain does not have the statistical power of the Web and probabilistic methods, although creating an effective collaboration of methods on the WWW, have not proven so effective in smaller domains. Here thesauri, taxonomies and ontologies were proving their worth. Leo Sauermann, CEO Gnowsis EU, continued this train of thought by promoting the use of specialised ontologies to surmount the challenge of personal search. The final talk of the session from Charlie Hull, CEO Flax, left us with two useful insights.
Firstly, “Search” projects being commissioned today are no longer simply search boxes over an intranet, but increasingly users are monitoring information sources for relevant input, and annotating and classifying the data found. Secondly, Flax’s creation of Clade — an auto-classification tool built (in a few days) entirely using open source software — again promoted the role of the taxonomy in enterprise search.
The penultimate session “The Future of Search” was opened by Nicholas Kemp, Principal Scientist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). This thought-provoking session introduced us to the application of information technology in “theatre” (battle field in civilian-speak) and more generally to this organisation’s interest in “illuminating the art of the technologically possible”. He was followed by Richard Morgan of Funnelback who urged us to empower the user — engage him and let him improve the search service.
The closing Fishbowl session entitled “Hot Topics in Search”, unsurprisingly prompted calls for discussion of the recent HP/Autonomy debacle. It also offered a chance to round up the day by reflecting on some of the other aspects raised throughout the day and to avoid delaying the AGM it was actually necessary to cut the discussion short.
As always, you can find links to the presentations of the day on the Search Solutions homepage.