Blog Category: Information seeking

Information Interaction in Context 2014

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I asked FXPAL alumni Jeremy Pickens to contribute a post on the best paper award at IIiX which is named after our late colleague Gene Golovchinsky.  For me, the episode Jeremy recounts exemplifies Gene’s willingness and generosity in helping others work though research questions.  The rest of this post is written by Jeremy.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Information Interaction in Context conference at the University of Regensburg.  It is a conference which attempts to bring together the systems and the user perspective on information retrieval and information seeking.  In short, it was exactly the type of conference at which our colleague Gene Golovchinsky was quite at home.  In fact, Gene had been one of the chairs of the conference before his passing last year.  The IIiX organizers made him an honorary chair.  During his time as chair, Gene secured FXPAL’s sponsorship of the conference including the honorarium that accompanied the Best Paper award.  The conference organizers decided to officially give the award in Gene’s memory, and as a former FXPAL employee, I was asked to present the award and to say a few words about Gene.

I began by sharing who I knew Gene to be through the lens of our first meeting.  It was 1998.  Maybe 1999.  Let’s say 1998.  I was a young grad student in the Information Retrieval lab at UMass Amherst.  Gene had recently convinced FXPAL to sponsor my advisor’s Industrial Advisory Board meeting.  This meant that once a year, the lab would put together a poster session to give IAB members a sneak preview of the upcoming research results before they appeared anywhere else.

Well, at that time, I was kinda an odd duck in the lab because I had started doing music Information Retrieval when most of my colleagues were working on text.  So there I am at the IAB poster session, with all these commercial, industry sponsors who have flown in from all over the country to get new ideas about how to improve their text search engines…and I’m talking about melodies and chords.  Do you know that look, when someone sees you but really does not want to talk with you?  When their eyes meet yours, and then keep on scanning, as if to pretend that they were looking past you the whole time?  For the first hour that’s how I felt.

Until Gene.

Now, I’m fairly sure that he really was not interested in music IR.  But not only did Gene stop and hear what I had to say, but he engaged.  Before I knew it, half an hour (or at least it felt like it) had passed by, and I’d had one of those great engaging Gene discussions that I would, a few years later when FXPAL hired me, have a whole lot more of.  Complete with full Gene eye twinkle at every new idea that we batted around.  Gene had this way of conducting a research discussion in which he could both share (give) ideas to you, and elicit ideas from you, in a way that I can only describe as true collaboration.

After the conference dinner and presentation had concluded, there were a number of people that approached me and shared very similar stories about their interactions with Gene.  And a number of people who expressed the sentiment that they wished they’d had the opportunity to know him.

I should also note that the Best Paper award went to Kathy Brennan, Diane Kelly, and Jamie Arguello, for their paper on “The Effect of Cognitive Abilities on Information Search for Tasks of Varying Levels of Complexity“. Neither I nor FXPAL had a hand in deciding who the best paper recipient was to be; that task went to the conference organizers.  But in what I find to be a touching coincidence, one of the paper’s authors, Diane Kelly, was actually Gene’s summer intern at FXPAL back in the early 2000s.  He touched a lot of people, and will be sorely missed.  I miss him.

Looking ahead

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It is reasonably well-known that people who examine search results often don’t go past the first few hits, perhaps stopping at the “fold” or at the end of the first page. It’s a habit we’ve acquired due to high-quality results to precision-oriented information needs. Google has trained us well.

But this habit may not always be useful when confronted with uncommon, recall-oriented, information needs. That is, when doing research. Looking only at the top few documents places too much trust in the ranking algorithm. In our SIGIR 2013 paper, we investigated what happens when a light-weight preview mechanism gives searchers a glimpse at the distribution of documents — new, re-retrieved but not seen, and seen — in the query they are about to execute.

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Client-side search


When we rolled out the CHI 2013 previews site, we got a couple of requests for being able to search the site with keywords. Of course interfaces for search are one of my core research interests, so that request got me thinking. How could we do search on this site? The problem with the conventional approach to search is that it requires some server-side code to do the searching and to return results to the client. This approach wouldn’t work for our simple web site, because from the server’s perspective, our site was static — just a few HTML files, a little bit of JavaScript, and about 600 videos. Using Google to search the site wouldn’t work either, because most of the searchable content is located on two pages, with hundreds of items on each page. So what to do?

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Details, please

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At a PARC Forum a few years ago, I heard Marissa Mayer mention the work they did at Google to pick just the right shade of blue for link anchors to maximize click-through rates. It was an interesting, if somewhat bizarre, finding that shed more light on Google’s cognitive processes than on human ones. I suppose this stuff only really matters when you’re operating at Google scale, but normally the effect, even if statistically-significant, is practically meaningless. But I digress.

I am writing a paper in which I would like to cite this work. Where do I find it? I tried a few obvious searches in the ACM DL and found nothing. I searched in Google Scholar, and I believe I found a book chapter that cited a Guardian article from 2009, which mentioned this work. But that was last night, and today I cannot re-find that book chapter, either by searching or by examining my browsing history. The Guardian article is still open in a tab, so I am pretty sure I didn’t dream up the episode, but it is somewhat disconcerting that I cannot retrace my steps.

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Slow down!


The prolific Jaime Teevan has decided to blog, as evidenced by the creation of “Slow Searching” a few weeks ago. In a recent post, Jaime wrote about some ways in which Twitter search differed from web search, among which she included monitoring behavior, running “the same query over and over again just to see what is new.” Putting on my Lorite hat for a minute, this seems quite similar (albeit on a different timescale) to the “pre-web” concept of routing or standing queries. At some point, later, Google introduced Alerts, which seemed to be its reinvention of the same concept. And of course tools like TweetDeck make  it much easier to keep up with particular Twitter topics.

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HCIR 2012 papers published!

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One of the things we did slightly differently in this year’s HCIR Symposium was to introduce full-length, pier reviewed, top-tier conference-quality papers. We received a number of submissions, each of which was read and discussed by three reviewers. We then rejected some of papers, and sent several back for a rewrite-and-resubmit cycle. In the end, we accepted four papers, which have now been published in the ACM Digital Library.

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HCIR 2012 keynote

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Last week we held the HCIR 2012 Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. This is the sixth in a series that we have organized. We expanded the format of this year’s meeting to a day and a half, and in addition to the posters, search challenge reports, and short talks, we introduced full papers reviewed to first-tier conference standards. I will write more about these later, and for details on other events at the Symposium, I refer you to the excellent blog post by one of the other co-orgranizers, Daniel Tunkelang.

In this post, I wanted to record my impressions of the keynote talk by Marti Hearst from UC Berkeley.

Opening slide from Marti Hearst's keynote address


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Invited talk at CATCH


Thanks to Frank Nack and Marc Bron, last week I had the opportunity to give a talk in The Netherlands at a NWO CATCH event organized by BRIDGE. NWO is the Dutch national research organization; BRIDGE is a project that explores access to television archives; and CATCH stands for Continuous Access To Cultural Heritage, which is something like an umbrella organization. The meeting was held at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, a rather interesting building.

Interior of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum

Although it was a long way to go for a one-day event, I am grateful to Frank and Marc for the invitation, for their efforts as hosts, and for all the great discussion during the talk, in the breaks between sessions, and, of course, over beers in the evening. It’s great to be able to make such connections; hopefully more collaboration will follow.

For those interested, here are the slides of my presentation, which expands a bit on my earlier blog post about using the history of interaction to improve exploratory search.

History matters

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Exploratory search is an uncertain endeavor. Quite often, people don’t know exactly how to express their information need, and that need may evolve over time as information is discovered and understood. This is not news.

When people search for information, they often run multiple queries to get at different aspects of the information need, to gain a better understanding of the collection, or to incorporate newly-found information into their searches. This too is not news.

The multiple queries that people run may well retrieve some of the same documents. In some cases, there may be little or no overlap between query results; at other times, the overlap may be considerable. Yet most search engines treat each query as an independent event, and leave it to the searcher to make sense of the results. This, to me, is an opportunity.

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CFP: HCIR 2012 Symposium

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We are happy to announce that the 2012 Human-Computer Information Retrieval Symposium (HCIR 2012) will be held in Cambridge, Massachusetts October 4 – 5, 2012. The HCIR series of workshops has provided a venue for discussion of ongoing research on a range of topics related to interactive information retrieval, including interaction techniques, evaluation, models and algorithms for information retrieval, visual design, user modeling, etc. The focus of these meetings has been to bring together people from industry and academia for short presentations and in-depth discussion. Attendance has grown steadily since the first meeting, and as a result this year we have decided to modify the structure of the meeting to accommodate the increasing demand for participation.

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