Cambridge Search Meetup – six degrees of ontology and Elasticsearching products

Last Wednesday evening the Cambridge Search Meetup was held with too very different talks – we started with Zoë Rose, an information architect who has lent her expertise to Proquest, the BBC and now the UK Government. She gave an engaging talk on ontologies, showing how they can be useful for describing things that don’t easily fit into traditional taxonomies and how they can even be used for connecting Emperor Hirohito of Japan to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps. Along the way we learnt about sea creatures that lose their spines, Zoë’s very Australian dislike of jellyfish and other stinging sea dwellers and her own self-cleaning fish tank at home.

As search developers, we’re often asked to work with both taxonomies and ontologies and the challenge is how to represent them in a flat, document-focused index – perhaps ontologies are better represented by linked data stores such as provided by Apache Marmotta.

Next was Jurgen Van Gael of Rangespan, a company that provide an easy way for retailers to expand their online inventory beyond what is available in brick-and-mortar stores (customers include Tesco, Argos and Staples). Jurgen described how product data is gathered into MongoDB and MySQL databases, processed and cleaned up on a Apache Hadoop cluster and finally indexed using Elasticsearch to provide a search application for Rangespan’s customers. Although indexing of 50 million items takes only 75 minutes, most of the source data is only updated daily. Jurgen described how heirarchical facets are available and also how users may create ‘shortlists’ of products they may be interested in – which are stored directly in Elasticsearch itself, acting as a simple NoSQL database. For me one of the interesting points from his talk was why Elasticsearch was chosen as a technology – it was tried during a hack day, found to be very easy to scale and to get started with and then quickly became a significant part of their technology stack. Some years ago implementing this kind of product search over tens of millions of items would have been a significant challenge (not to mention very expensive) – with Elasticsearch and other open source software this is simply no longer the case.

Networking and socialising continued into the evening, with live music in the pub downstairs. Thanks to everyone who came and in particular our two speakers. We’ll be back with another Meetup soon!

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