SIGIR 2017: Typhoon, Earthquake, and Godzillas

SIGIR 2017 logoThe International ACM Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (SIGIR) was held in the land of rising sun for its 40th meeting. The conference was hosted at Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo and ran from Monday the 7th until Friday the11th of August. Keio Plaza is a 47-story building located in the heart of the city’s vibrant Shinjuku entertainment and shopping district right in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

This year’s conference featured many special events dedicated to the 40th annual meeting. The conference had a record-breaking 911 registered participants (a 58% increase from SIGIR 2016). The overwhelming size of the conference was evident as the organizers kept announcing the increasing number of registered people on Twitter. This year’s edition received 362 full papers out of which 78 were accepted. The acceptance rate was 22%. The 40th anniversary of the SIGIR conference was unusual in many aspects. It was the first year that selected papers from TOIS were presented. The organizers managed to move the review system from ConfMaster to EasyChair and, more importantly, “outstanding reviewers” were recognized and awarded!

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

 

Monday

Kimono Ceremony held at Keio Plaza Hotel

The conference started on Monday, welcoming the participants with a wide variety of half- and full-day tutorials. Four full-day, as well as four half-day tutorials, ran. Among these tutorials, Neural Networks for Information Retrieval (NN4IR) attracted the highest number of participants (which was not a surprise). The first day also hosted the Doctoral Consortium. The greater scale of this year’s conference was very soon revealed to everyone at the registration desk, early in the morning. The conference organizers had arranged many free sightseeing tours as well as Kimono and tea ceremonies. A long queue of people keen to discover the Japanese culture was enough to sell out all the tickets in the blink of an eye.

Three different floors hosted the tutorials. The NN4IR tutorial was held on the fifth floor. This full-day tutorial aimed to give an overview of current neural methods and their challenges in IR. “From Design to Analysis: Conducting Controlled Laboratory Experiments with Users” was another interesting tutorial on a completely different topic. As the name suggests, this full-day tutorial focused on general instruction for designing controlled laboratory experiments. Ian Soboroff, on the other hand, presented a full-day tutorial on how to build a test collection in your garage, where he shared his valuable experiences after years of working in the TREC. Other (half-day) tutorials were on “Candidate Selection for Large Scale Personalized Search and Recommender Systems,” “A/B Testing at Scale: Accelerating Software Innovation,” “Probabilistic Topic Models for Text Data Retrieval and Analysis” and “Statistical Significance Testing in Information Retrieval: Theory and Practice.” The Doctoral Consortium hosted nine brilliant student presentations to whom the mentors provided very insightful feedback.

At 18:00, before the conference reception, Laura Dietz turned everyone’s attention to a session on “Women in IR” where many successful women in the community introduced themselves in a one-minute presentation. The session was followed by a talk by Hannah Bast on the identification of discrimination in the workplace.  As the clock ticked to 19:00, the conference reception started on the 42nd and 43rd floors. The 42nd floor offered eastern food while European food was provided on the 43rd floor. A careful mixture of eastern and western food, as well as local drinks, brought a pleasant atmosphere to the reception. This was a great way to socialize before the conference started.

Tuesday

Early in the morning, Keio Plaza witnessed some 900 people rushing to the registration desks, trying to find their name badges and Eminence Hall where the Noriko Kando opened the conference. The opening was similar to every other conference until Noriko asked the participants not to panic if there was a big earthquake! Easy to say for the Japanese as they experience it on a weekly basis. Stephen Robertson gave an exciting keynote talk about the history of IR. It was fascinating for many participants to hear how he came up with the BM25 score and his opinion on the reasons why Google became a successful search engine.

After a short coffee break, enough time to digest the insightful keynote session, three parallel sessions started on the fifth floor of the venue. The sessions covered “Evaluation,” “Retrieval Models and Ranking,” and “Content Representation and Content Analysis.” After all the exciting speeches, the participants rushed to grab their Japanese lunchboxes and have their student luncheon. Students at this stage started to find their favorite “table captains” with whom they had their lunch, introduced themselves and asked their questions.

Right after the lunch, Jaap Kamps welcomed all participants to the lunch and Laura Dietz gave a quick summary of the student luncheon event and announced the student get-together event. Also, she introduced six student liaisons who are going to represent students from the community, of whom three were present at the conference and were asked to stand up so that all other students saw with whom they can get in touch to discuss any student-related matters. The student liaisons managed to launch the “Ph.D. Buddy Program” as part of their debut, aiming to help students build a successful career.

The student luncheon was followed by the first poster and demo session on the 43rd floor of the building resulting in long queues for the elevators. Obviously climbing 39 levels by the stairs was not an option for anyone. People were welcomed by various desserts and drinks and were indeed challenged to find the posters of their interest in the maze-like poster arrangement! Some people were luckier to have the magnificent view of Tokyo right next to their posters. Another set of inspiring talks constituted the three parallel afternoon sessions where papers on “Search Interaction,” “Filtering and Recommendation,” and “Other Application and Specialized Domains” were presented. This fruitful set of talks brought us to the end of the second day of the conference.

The Hotel with a Godzilla on top!

But wait, no, it was just the beginning. An astonishing ten-minute walk on the streets of Tokyo took us to the place where the student get-together was organized, close to the hotel with a Godzilla! Not surprisingly, the place came with a big stage for Karaoke! Having the first-ever SIGIR conference in Japan, everybody should have their taste of Karaoke in the land where it is invented. As Laura promised during the student luncheon, anyone who was brave enough to go on stage to sing a paper title or any IR-related song would receive a free drink! Apparently, Laura knows very well how to motivate people. So, soon enough, students started making noise with a made-up song “I wanna beat your results!.” A few rounds after the opening song, there was a long queue of people who went up on stage and proved their singing and dancing talents. Well, no offense, but some of them proved to be wrong.

Students dancing at the Karaoke Stage

Wednesday

After a long night of singing and dancing, everyone was fresh and ready to hear the next exciting keynote of the conference by Yoelle Maarek. She argued that users’ expectations from Web and email search are very different. While users look for a document that satisfies their information need on web search, they want one specific email in their inbox, she said. Users wish to find that exact email even though they cannot recall the exact time, date or other details, she added. After a short coffee break, everyone spread in three rooms for another three parallel sessions. The sessions were on “Search Interaction,” “Filtering and Recommending,” and “Document Representation and Content Analysis.”

Those inspiring talks brought us to lunch with the theme of diversity and inclusion. “To build a higher mountain, you need a wider base!,” said Norika as she explained the central theme of the conference. A set of controversial talks followed her speech on the importance of diversity and inclusion, the rest of the session was an open discussion. Many questions, personal experiences, and problems were discussed. The second session of posters and demos started right after lunch. A big crowd of participants was trying to find the posters of their interest. This poster session also hosted some resource papers on many aspects of IR ranging from contextual suggestion to entity linking. After two dense hours of posters, people spread to three concurrent sessions where works were presented on “Evaluation,” “Retrieval Models, and Ranking,” and “Queries and Query Analysis.”

The 40th anniversary of the ACM SIGIR Conference hosted a special awards ceremony. The ceremony started as the sessions ended and right before the conference banquet. The primary focus was to recognize papers selected for the ACM SIGIR Test of Time Award from 1978 till 2001. It was easy to guess that Bruce Croft would be the champion winning a bunch of awards. In addition to that, Diane Kelly also announced some exclusive controversial awards such as the paper with the most number of authors and the person with most single-authored papers! This session was one of the most interesting sessions of the conference and fun at the same time. Some interesting facts were also presented, for example, how well people are connected in the community. Diane also named Ryen White as the most connected person in the community.

Right outside of Keio Plaza, buses were lined up to take the participants to Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo. This hotel was a perfect venue for such a big night. A beautiful garden full of lanterns, waterfalls, and mills provided a memorable walk to everyone. Inside the hotel, people lined up for their dinner. There was a wide variety of food, mostly oriental. Some booths were preparing fine sushis of different kinds on-the-spot. The magnificent photo album from 40 years of SIGIR conferences was projected all over the venue. At some point, Tetsuya Sakai drew the participants attention welcoming them to the dinner and explaining the Japanese tradition of Kagami Biraki. All the conference chairs were gathered around the Sake barrel to break the lid, that was the only way we could get some Sake. The participants were enjoying the great food and wide variety of drinks when Diane announced the awards of this year’s conference. She had to wait for some five minutes after announcing each award so that the winners could find their way to the stage.

Thursday

The morning after the banquet must have been challenging for many who had enjoyed various types of drinks. Nevertheless, many made it to the first set of parallel sessions on “Retrieval Models and Ranking,” “Filtering and Recommending,” and “Efficiency and Scalability.” Right in the middle of the session, Keio Plaza began to shake! Hard to believe, but it was a real earthquake in the middle of the conference. Thanks to the fabulous Japanese engineering, it turned to be a fun experience. The session was followed by a short coffee break and other two concurrent sessions on “Personalization and Privacy” and “Conversations and Question Answering.” The first session of the SIGIR Symposium on IR in Practice (SIRIP) was also held in parallel on “Start-Ups and Beyond.”

This day’s lunch was devoted to the SIGIR business meeting where the ACM SIGIR Executive Committee discussed on-going financial and political matters. The general chairs of future SIGIR conferences also had a chance to advertise their cities wishing to break the 911-participant record of Tokyo! The business meeting was followed by three parallel sessions on “Social” and “Entities,” as well as another SIRIP session on “Start-Up Research and Academic Collaboration.” The conference chairs closed the conference in the afternoon making Noriko emotional when she received a beautiful bouquet. The room was not full though because half of the crowd were at a parallel industry session on “Research at Large-scale Search Engines.”

The SIGIR 2017 Organizing Team

Friday

Friday hosted eight workshops representing various issues researchers in our field face. Two half-day workshops focused on axiomatic thinking for IR and bibliometric-enhanced IR. The rest were full-day workshops ranging from neural IR to eCommerce. I attended the workshop on conversational approaches to IR where Ronald Kaplan and Jason Williams had two insightful keynote speeches. The workshop also hosted an exciting panel discussion as well as open discussion. Milad Shokouhi steered the open discussion by bringing up some open challenges in the area which was followed by a long queue of questions and comments from the audience. The discussion continued between the participants, as the workshop was closing.

No doubt everyone felt lucky to be a part of the biggest SIGIR conference. This was a unique Japanese experience, which started with spotting a Godzilla, followed by an earthquake and an approaching typhoon notice. Lastly, singing and dancing at the karaoke bar was a perfect complement to this adventurous conference; however, this exciting experience did not end here for many who had planned a short vacation after the conference in Tokyo or Kyoto. Wish to see all of you next year in Ann Arbor.

Noriko Kando at the conference closing

 

About Mohammad Aliannejadi
Mohammad Aliannejadi

Mohammad is a Ph.D. student at Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) in Switzerland, working on Mobile Information Retrieval. His main emphasis is on combining different relevance criteria for mobile IR. Some of the relevance criteria are topical, temporal, geographical, etc. Before that, he has worked on Contextual Suggestion and Spoken Language Understanding.

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