HCIR 2009: Human-Human Interaction

On Friday, I had the privilege of seeing just how much the annual Workshop on Human-Computer Information Retrieval has grown up since I conceived it in the summer of 2007. Back then, my co-conspirators and I worried about attracting a critical mass of participants–indeed, Endeca employees easily accounted for a quarter of the attendees (and submissions) at the first HCIR workshop. And even last year host and co-sponsor Microsoft Research supplied a disproportionate share of the attendees.

But this year was different. We were overloaded with strong submissions from all corners, and we had to turn people away for lack of capacity! While we didn’t relish saying no to prospective participants, these are great problems to have! And, thanks to Nick Belkin and Diane Kelly, we’ve arranged to greatly increase that capacity at HCIR 2010–more on that in a moment.

Max Wilson has already written up an excellent summary of the workshop, which I encourage you to read. You can also see the live tweet stream at #hcir09. Rather than duplicate these efforts, let me add my personal reflections as an organizer and participant.

Ben Shneiderman‘s keynote address was sweeping and inspiring. I expected him to talk about information visualization, the area where he is most known for his contributions. He did present some examples of his group’s work on visualization-centric interfaces to support medical research, but his overall presentation took the much more ambitious approach of discussing the past, present, and possible future of HCIR. Specifically, he urged us to link our work to societal goals, such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. His challenge may seem impossibly idealistic, but I agree with his assertion that it is a practical one: we will do our best research by grounding ourselves firmly in the real and pressing problems of our age. Last year’s keynote speaker went on to win the Gerard Salton Award; I can only hope that Ben receives comparable accolades for his past accomplishments and future contributions to HCIR.

A new feature for this year’s workshop was having a “poster boaster” session, in which each of the presenters in the poster session had one minute to pitch his or her work.  For those of you unfamiliar with this format, I highly recommend it. The compressed format forces presenters to distill the essence of their contributions–a useful exercise in general. And the audience doesn’t get bored: if you decide halfway into a presentation that you aren’t interested, then you only have to wait 30 seconds until the next one! Not the we had that problem: the posters were consistently interesting, as the submissions were unusually strong this year. You can download the full workshop proceedings here.

Even the full presentations weren’t that long. The five speakers were each allotted ten minutes, with a healthy amount of time reserved for a panel-style Q&A sessions. The papers in this session were, by design, some of the more controversial ones. In particular, Ellen Voorhees delivered a full-throated defense of Cranfield / TREC-style evaluation: “I Come Not to Bury Cranfield, but to Praise It” (similar to her presentation at the 2006 Workshop on Adaptive Information Retrieval that I discussed on this blog last year). Her reminder of HCIR’s challenges on the evaluation front surely ruffled some feathers, but all of us HCIR avocates need to address these challenges if we want researchers (and practitioners) outside our community to drink our kool-aid.

The above format was already quite interactive (as befits a workshop about interaction), but the second half of the day was explicitly designed to facilitate discussion. We had lunch on site, followed by a one-hour poster session.  We then had two one-hour guided discussion sessions to address the theoretical and practical concerns of HCIR. As organizers, we seeded both sessions with questions, but we also incorporated concerns that had come up during earlier discussions.

Finally, I am grateful to our sponsors. Catholic University was a gracious host and sponsor, providing the workshop with a great space and very helpful student volunteers. Between that and the financial contributions of Endeca and Microsoft Research, we were able to continue our tradition of not charging attendees for the workshop. I can’t promise that will continue indefinitely, but I am glad that our insistence on emphasizing substance over frivolous amenities has helped us deliver what I believe to be some of the best bang-for-buck in the scholarly community.

I’m already excited about HCIR 2010. Unlike the past three workshops, which have been held as independent events, next year’s workshop will be co-located with the Information Interaction in Context Symposium (IIiX’10) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The workshop will take place on August 22nd, breaking our unintended tradition of holding the workshop on October 23rd. Nick Belkin assures us that there will be lots of space, so hopefully we’ll be able to accommodate everyone who is interested. We’ll also be soliciting sponsors for both the workshop and the broader symposium.

But there’s more to HCIR than enjoying each other’s company at workshops. We must spend the remaining 364 days of the year fleshing out our vision, and relating that vision not only to the disciplines HCIR explicitly integrates, but to pressing social concerns. It is up to us all to make our work relevant.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

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