Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kris Hammond on Frictionless Information at SIIA

The basic message of this talk can be summed up as "Don't compete with Google, but do an end run around the search box by pushing relevant content to users as they create or consume information." Dr. Hammond is co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. His talk was unusually technical for SIIA, and was greatly enjoyed by some, but not others. (I enjoyed it, of course.)

Frictionless information is defined as "information that proactively serves people based on the context of their activities." The idea is: know the user, be embedded in their workflow, understand their context, and get content to help them. Push from any relevant source and deliver to any format. Two applications were presented which illustrate the concept.

One is a desktop "relevance engine" that suggests content in the research pane of Word, based on what the user is writing. This idea is not totally new (c.f., the Watson search tool), but the magic is all in the execution. How often do you query, what sources, how do you ensure pinpoint relevance and up-to-the-minute freshness? The strategy seemed to be to query a lot initially, e.g., when the user opens or starts a document, and then only present things that are new, e.g., when the focus changes.

The other is called "Beyond Broadcast" - a program that watches TV along with you (presumably embedded in a Tivo box?) that builds a micro-site based on what you're seeing. On the site, there is related Web material, such as news, YouTube videos, blogs, and of course ads. The application apparently takes the kind of show into account, e.g., feature film, comedy show, etc. The client is Titan TV, whose primary business is delivering TV to your PC.

I do like these ideas. At Thomson Reuters, we built a recommendation system based on the relevance engine concept back in 2003, called ResultsPlus. ResultsPlus reads queries being run against case opinions on Westlaw and suggests other sources of information, such as briefs, law reviews etc. Thanks to high relevance driven by personalization, this service has been a huge hit. Annotating video with Web and other data is another active area of research for us, and will appear in a new product launch shortly.

I believe that traditional publishers can indeed preserve their relevance in the face of new media if they leverage their domain expertise, and that of their users, to support customers proactively in the performance of common, but high value, tasks. Basic search is now a commodity, but what I am describing here (which I call "expert search") is not a commodity, since it requires both scarce knowledge and the existence of an online community.