Trawling the Web for place-related information is tedious at the best of times. A new search engine, being tested in Europe, recognises geographical terminology and has the intelligence to understand the searches and match them to places.
[ClickPress, Mon Feb 14 2005] Punch in a request for all restaurants ‘north’ of any particular town, and the average search engine will draw a blank. “The problem,” says Christopher Jones, coordinator of the IST project Spirit, “is they provide place-specific information. They find places, but don’t know what they are or what is nearby.”
Web engines offering to search for information by geographical location, he adds, are experimental or link responses to advertisements. Which is why five European universities and a national mapping agency joined forces to produce a ‘spatially aware information retrieval’ system, for use with the Internet.
Within 18 months, the project had a prototype. Based on a pure text search engine developed by project partner Sheffield University, ‘Spirit’ specialises in finding information that relates to a particular geographical location.
“Our demonstrator focuses on Europe, specifically cities such as Cardiff, Edinburgh and Zurich,” says Jones. “It contains a test collection of around 20,000 place names, but these will soon be expanded to 100 million, built on a terabyte of data.”
From March 2005, anyone can test the demonstrator by logging onto the project website. Adds the coordinator: “We offer restricted access and limited indexes, partly due to copyright issues. But testers will discover that Spirit is fast and effective for certain types of query.”
Because Spirit has broader relevance than most search engines, users can find information with ease. It understands what people mean when they search for data related to commonly given names of places with no official boundaries, such as England’s Lake District or the Ruhr industrial region in Germany. It can also find places within places, examples being the boroughs of London, without the user having to specify this in the original search.
At the heart of Spirit is the geographic ontology, a knowledge base of geographic places built from various resources. “This base is vital for geotagging or characterising documents according to their geographical context. It also recognises user queries even if they involve free associations,” says Jones. The engine can, for instance, find alternative names – very useful for tracking the one in ten places with one or more names. Relevance ranking also enables distance-based searches.
The project’s demonstrator is being refined with spatial indexing and geotagging. The goal is to create an ontology to recognise imprecise and vague names.
“We are seeking a promoter to take this software beyond the project’s lifetime,” says Jones. He believes people working in his own discipline of Geographical Information Systems would benefit from Spirit, since GIS is a specialised area based on digital map data, where users often want to do specific searches based on names.
Other commercialisation targets include digital libraries and search-engine companies expanding their conventional sources. Lastly, according to the coordinator, Spirit could open up new markets for location-aware mobile devices, since so much of the data they use is geographically specific.
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