Staying over in London due to the aforementioned tube strike proved to be a good idea and a large fried breakfast an even better one, so I arrived at the second day of the conference right on time and ready for the second day’s keynote by Jeff Fried of BA Insight and Professor Elaine Toms from Sheffield University, who hadn’t met before the event but spoke in turn on the Future of Search. Jeff’s expert and challenging view included some depressing statistics (only 4-5% of search projects succeed completely) and a description of an all-too-familiar ‘Search Immaturity Cycle’ – buy search technology, build application, discover it’s failing, attempt to work out why and then give up and try a new search technology. The positive side of his argument was that real progress has been made – search has a much lower TCO (in part due to the rise of open source), is more widely used and is far easier to administrate and run. He also mentioned some groundbreaking projects attempting to ‘understand the world’ that should inspire better enterprise search – IBM’s Watson and Wolfram Alpha.
After a brief but friendly argument with Jeff about sport(s) Elaine took over with the view from academia – describing the various academic disciplines linked to search and how they sometimes fail to link up, and how we have attempted with limited success to transplant a highly structured way of dealing with data onto the essentially unstructured real world, without taking proper notice of the wide variety of contexts (i.e. the myriad influences acting on people in the working environment that affect their information needs). She told us that we should work towards ‘providing the right information at the point of decision making’ and must identify the work task we are trying to assist, developing small and single-purpose applications based on search. Jeff, returning to the stage, told us that search itself will disappear as the pure functionality becomes ubiquitous and invisible. I’m not sure I agree about intelligent assistants though, I thought we’d killed that idea a long time ago (and Autonomy never had much luck with their Kenjin application – I was working on something similar at the time).
Next I popped in to hear Michael Upshall talk about the various text mining methods available and how they were investigated for CABI, including an interesting project Plantwise allowing farmers to find out which pest might affect their crops. I missed the next talk as I had some work to catch up on but returned to hear Dr. Haiming Liu list various multimedia search resources, some better than others: as she said there’s a large ‘semantic gap’ with most of these services and they work best in constrained domains. The final presentation of the day for me was from Martin Dotter and Olaf Peters about a large-scale project to develop content processing for Airbus’ enterprise search engine – again, the scale was very impressive, with over 80,000 users and 4000 business applications in Airbus’ IT landscape. They described how they had developed a detailed process for gathering data from all the various content repositories and owners, resulting in a 44 million document index.
I had to leave before the last panel unfortunately so missed Jeff and Elaine’s re-take on the future of search. This year’s event was in my view the best since Enterprise Search Europe began: some great talks, informative and friendly networking and flawless organisation. Thanks to everyone involved and see you next time! Remember most of the slides are available here.