Archive for July, 2010

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Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

SIGIR: Research vs. Reality

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Last week, I attended SIGIR 2010 in Geneva, where I presented a paper. The conference has left its traces online: a steady stream of tweets and some great blog-posts (e.g., the Noisy Channel). You can even read comments about the incredible (and, for my part, unexpected) temperatures of some of the conference rooms.

It is always interesting to attend conferences, meet people, and see what research others do to fill their time. However, it was also interesting to attend SIGIR for another reason. Back when the notifications were released, there was a noticeable outcry about the poor quality of the reviewing process. Some authors chose to publish public rebuttals to the reviewers on their blog; others wrote about the unending cycle of complaining that the IR community has spiraled into. “Not Relevant” was born in the wake of all this discussion to give SIGIR rejects an alternative venue to publish work. I wanted to see how this outcry would have been reflected in the conference itself – would the “complainers” not attend? Would the attendees be the subset of authors who are happy with SIGIR? In short: no. There were conversations that I heard replay themselves over and over in the coffee breaks that echoed a variety of problems in the IR-research community. In trying to make sense of the flurry of comments, it seems there are two general areas that need attention:

1. The divergence between reality and research. As the web grows (and goes mobile) the breadth and types of information that people want to access has both grown and changed. However, image, mobile/contextual, and real-time (see tweet) search were largely underrepresented at the conference. A quick look at the conference program shows that the conference still focuses primarily on text and document retrieval. Can people’s information needs be fully captured in a text/document-oriented conference? Is the published research ignoring the

latest trends in information access?

2. The divergence between research and reality. The flip side of the coin: SIGIR research has fallen into a methodological rut; the conference is “trapped by a very successful paradigm [...where] people can do complex work, the quality of that work can be measured, and progress made.” There are two problems here: first, the community has been hypnotised by its metrics. The current research paradigm encourages researchers to produce “minor-delta” papers (i.e., “we propose an algorithm that improves a baseline by x%”) rather than look at novel problems (see #1 above). However, while doing so, there is no evidence of long-term, cumulative progress in decades of publications. On the other hand, I continue to miss the link between these metrics and the users that they are meant to serve (similar discussions often arise between recommender system researchers). Yes, there are lengthy arguments to be had here: the most important point, now, is that this discussion needs to happen (and happen more frequently).

Lastly, a more general note, based on a question I was asked that is worth pondering on and related, more generally, to all the research we do. Why do we have presentation-based conferences? We take turns standing up, giving our 20-minute summary of our paper, and relegate all meaningful conversation to short coffee breaks. How does this affect the research that we produce?

…will last week become the last SIGIR that I ever attend?

The other America

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

The only sign most people have that they’re passing the headquarters of the world’s largest spy agency is that their GPS

stops working.


It’s with such evocative details that the Washington Post paints its portrait of Top Secret America, an “alternative geography of the United States” that took more than two years of research to assemble from public records. Parts of the project are so crowded with Byzantine bureaucracies, mysterious devices and vast sums of unaccounted money that they read like mediaeval travellers’ tales; others focus on the quotidian, from casino-themed networking nights for employees with Top Secret clearance to the Director of Counterterrorism’s battle to read all his email on the same computer.

It’s perhaps appropriate that this project has, like the maneuvering rival-allies in the cozily named US Intelligence Community, its own double across disciplinary lines — Trevor Paglen has spent eight years exploring and documenting the “black world” in a series of books and exhibitions (the image above is from his Symbology project on the insignia of classified military units). But whereas the Post is hungry for facts, to the point that its investigation ironically suffers from the same information overload it diagnoses in the intelligence world, Paglen’s lens is always focussed on the point where certainty ends and secrecy begins: the holes in the map that modernity promised to sew shut, and that its left hand is now busily unpicking as quickly as its right can close them.

If we had thought our networks, processors and databases would push back the frontiers of ignorance, we were right; what we couldn’t have known was that the territory would be populated by chimeras: that which we know but can’t reveal, that which we know but can’t find, and that which we know but can’t understand.

ubicomp beyond familiar strangers

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The department of Design Interactions at the Royal Collage of Art has posted online this year’s student projects

Some projects propose ubicomp devices that solve fundamental, societal issues :-) They are for those who:

Check all the projects here