Cambridge Search Meetup review – Two different kinds of university search

James Alexander of the Open University talked first on the Access to Video Assets project, a prototype system that looked at preservation, digitisation and access to thousands of TV programs originally broadcast by the BBC. James’ team have worked out an approach based on open source software – storing programme metadata and video assets in a Fedora Commons repository, indexing and searching using Apache Solr, authentication via Drupal – that is testament to the flexibility of these packages (some of which are being used in non-traditional ways – for example Drupal is used in a ‘nodeless’ fashion). He showed the search interface, which allowed you to find the exact points within a long video where particular words are mentioned and play video directly with a pop-up window. I’d seen this talk before (here’s a video and slides from Lucene Eurocon) but what I hadn’t grasped is how Solr is used as a mediation layer between the user and what can be some very complex data around the video asset itself (subtitles, rights information, format information, scripts etc.). As he mentioned, search is being used as a gateway technology to effective re-use of this huge archive.

Udo Kruschwitz was next with a brief treatment of his ongoing work on automatically extracting domain knowledge and using this to improve search results (for example see the ‘Suggestions’ on the University of Essex website) – he showed us some of the various methods his team have tried to analyze query logs, including Ant Colony Optimisation (modelling ‘trails’ of queries that can be reinforced by repeat visits, or ‘fade’ over time as they are less used). I liked the concept of developing a ‘community’ search profile where individual search profiles are hard to obtain – and how this could be simply subdivided (so for example searchers from inside a university might have a different profile to those outside). The key idea here is that all these techniques are automatic, so the system is continually evolving to give better search suggestions and hints. Udo and his team are soon to release an open source adaptive search framework to be called “Sunny Aberdeen” which we look forward to hearing about.

The evening ended with networking and a pint or two in traditional fashion – thanks to both our speakers and to all who came, from as far afield as Milton Keynes, Essex and Luton. The group now has 70 members and we’re building an active and friendly local community of search enthusiasts.

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