Dennis Aumiller and Satya Almasian, Heidelberg University
After two years of (involuntary) abstinence from any in-person event, this year’s ECIR marked the start of a new era of hybrid conferences. Despite a late lifting of travel restrictions by the Norwegian government, which was announced only two months before the conference date, over 180 people decided to attend at least part of the conference in person.
About as many additional participants also attended the conference in a virtual fashion, which was already a considered modality of attendance throughout the past years. Notably, the Covid situation in Norway was relaxed to a point where no masks were required at any event, which meant that “face-to-face” conversations were possible again in the literal sense.(Source: The authors).
For this “northernmost ECIR ever”, University of Stavanger’s Krisztian Balog spearheaded the general chair and organizing committee. During his opening remarks, Krisztian himself noted that ECIR 2022 will likely serve as both a template and experiment for future hybrid conferences, and both positive and negative feedback alike can serve as input for future iterations. He and his team had the additional burden of designing an enjoyable (and inclusive) experience for both in-person and remote participants, especially on such short notice. You can read up on more of the technical set-up on this page: https://ecir2022.org/hybrid-setup/. A distinguishable highlight (particularly for remote participants) was the dedicated video team available for the main conference track, which ensured a high-quality audio and video signal.
With the local Clarion Energy Hotel serving as the in-person location, the organizers chose an overall solid conference venue with friendly staff and modern design. In addition, residents at the conference hotel got to enjoy a fantastic breakfast buffet, ensuring a good start to a busy day of conference activities with plenty of coffee breaks and a hearty lunch in between. Unfortunately, the location was about four kilometers outside of the city center, which forced attendees to make use of the fascinatingly efficient public transport system of Norway (including electric rental bikes) to get to their after-hours celebrations in the city center.
Workshop and Tutorial Day
The first day of ECIR opened with a solid mix of both established workshops, such as BIR (now in its 12th edition!), Text2Story, ROMCIR and BIAS, and one new addition (the “Augmented Intelligence in Technology-Assisted Review Systems: Evaluation Metrics and Protocols for eDiscovery and Systematic Review Systems (ALTARS 2022)” workshop). Aside from that, attendees could also visit one of the four tutorials.
The program on the first day forced participants to choose between different parallel tracks, in contrast to a singular track at the main conference in the following days. This also meant that the tech setup was left to the organizers of the respective program, which lead to additional “points of failure” for technical equipment and a less inclusive atmosphere for remote participants.
Both authors were attending the Text2Story workshop, which boasted a program of two keynotes and several talks centered around the extraction of narratives in text. In particular, an entertaining afternoon keynote by Andreas Spitz kept the audience engaged for a full day of talks.
After the program concluded for the day, in-person participants were transported to the Stavanger Petroleum Museum, which boasts a stunning splash of modern architecture in the otherwise quilt and more traditionally Norwegian harborfront of downtown Stavanger.
In addition to engaging in conversations and a general sense of excitement about the return of in-person events, attendees could stroll about the museum and learn more about the intertwined history that identifies the Norwegian oil mining industry.
Main Conference Track
The main difference to a purely in-person track was a newly designed three-tiered presentation stage: For each paper, presenters were essentially allowed to choose between an in-person “live” presentation, a remote “live” presentation (both of which with interactive Q&A sessions after the talks), and a third option to play pre-recorded videos, without any further Q&A.
One of the noteworthy improvements was the shared Q&A platform for each session (https://www.dory.app/; in the picture below you can see the audience view after each talk). All participants could ask questions, and upvote other questions that they found particularly interesting. In general, moderators of the session would then proceed to ask from the highest-voted question after the presentation. As Craig Macdonald put it, it removed the possibility to ask “questions” that are in fact only minute-long explanations. Simultaneously, questions of remote participants were not discriminated against, which was a huge plus.
However, remote presenters (of either format) got generally less attention during their talks than physical presentations, which hints at the fact that people might not be used to a truly hybrid attendance (yet?). As for the actual program, a singular session track meant that participants had the opportunity to listen to every presentation, which was a quite pleasant experience.
A complaint by participants in remote time zones was the lack of an alternative presentation time outside the European-centric 9am-5pm schedule (even recordings were not accessible to participants throughout the conference). However, as it is now standard practice, the conference proceedings were published by Springer and were made open access for a month from 5th April. This meant that curious participants could still read up on the works in question and follow up at a later point between session tracks.
You can find the link to the proceedings here: https://ecir2022.org/proceedings/
For a full view of the main track program, check it out here: https://ecir2022.org/program-overview/
For poster presentations and system demonstrations, each day had a different set of presenters. Here, the mode of interaction turned out to be more complicated, as there had to be both accommodations for four interaction patterns: live-live, live presenter – remote viewer, remote presenter – live viewer, and remote-remote. This added some extensive overhead to the schedule, but available remote booths provided a decent space for discussions between remote and live participants, although they were again not as popular as direct face-to-face interactions.
Furthermore, posters and demos were supposed to be available throughout the entire day, particularly during the coffee and lunch breaks. While this gave viewers a relaxed way of strolling (or browsing) through papers at different times, it also meant that presenters had to sacrifice some of their well-deserved break time in order to ensure their availability for feedback during each poster slot.
One highlight of each day were the three keynotes. Isabelle Augenstein brought participants along on a journey through the unexplored world of “Accountable and Robust Automatic Fact Checking”; Peter A. Flach entertained a statistical view on the relation between different empirical evaluation models, and Ivan Vulić, last year’s Karen Spärck Jones award winner, delivered the last keynote on Wednesday with a talk on language technology for a “Truly Multilingual World”.
On Tuesday, in-person attendees got to enjoy a banquet at the conference location. During the three-course menu, Maarten de Rijke moderated the award ceremony as award committee chair. As best full paper, Gustavo Penha et al. were awarded for their work titled “Evaluating the Robustness of Retrieval Pipelines with Query Variation Generators”.
The full list of awards includes:
- Industry Impact Award: “Ensemble Model Compression for Fast and Energy-Efficient Ranking on FPGAs” by Gil Costa et al.
- Test of Time Award: “In Search of Quality in Crowdsourcing for Search Engine Evaluation” by Gabriella Kazai
- Best Short Paper: “A Light-weight Strategy for Restraining Gender Biases in Neural Rankers” by Amin Bigdeli et al.
- Best Reproducibility Paper: “The Power of Anchor Text in the Neural Retrieval Era” by Maik Fröbe et al.
Further, the committee rewarded especially committed reviewers. Outstanding reviewers are:
- Anett Hoppe
- Alexander Bondarenko
- Brenda Santana
- Bruno Martins
- David Maxwell
- Fattane Zarinkalam
- Gloria Feher
- Maik Fröbe
- Mohammad Aliannejadi
- Shubham Chatterjee
- Thibault Formal
Doctoral Consortium and Industry Day
Thursday marked already the last day of the conference and a chance for junior members of the community to gather some valuable feedback on their thesis projects at the Doctoral Consortium. Although neither of the authors attended, other participants seemed extremely excited and motivated to explore new avenues based on their mentors’ responses.
In parallel, the remaining participants could gather insights into the practical relevance and implementation of solutions in the industry, with a colorful mix of topics from custom FPGA over latency-bound autocomplete on large tables, to scalable solutions for Image Retrieval. As always, the exchange turned out to be quite valuable for both sides, with a healthy amount of theoretically motivated questions and suggestions for improvements, and a simultaneous practical view on “established” problems.
After a full five days of pure ECIR action, it is time for a brief summary of the conference and a speculative outlook for future hybrid events in the upcoming year(s). While Krisztian Balog and his team did an excellent job at organizing the first hybrid version of ECIR, there are also some of the more (and less) expected side effects.
There is still a remaining imbalance between in-person attendees and remote participants. Whether this was only due to ECIR being the first event of its kind, or whether this will become the “new norm” for conference interactions, only time will tell. However, practical solutions to certain aspects, e.g., the discussion platforms used for Q&A, as well as the idea of remote interaction booths, are a great start and will hopefully find itself at more future events.
For physical participants, this ECIR definitely marked a big milestone in a belated “return to normal” and offered a fabulous ambience in the quaint city of Stavanger. With that being said, many of the participants are probably already looking forward to the next year and ECIR’s new host city of Dublin, where ECIR’23 will take place between the 02nd-06th April, 2023. For more information, you can check out the upcoming event here: http://ecir2023.org/!