Here’s a New Year’s resolution: to kick-start the London Text Analytics group and get the programme of MeetUps going again. The Enterprise Search London group certainly sets the example: 250+ members and 8 meetings over the course of 2010. By contrast, Text Analytics is flatlining at around 40 members, with just a couple of Meetups thus far. Of course, this disparity may simply be nature’s way of telling me as organiser to be more proactive… but it does make me wonder: what is a realistic size for a group of this nature anyway?
I’ve worked in NLP and IR for almost two decades, in both research and commercial settings, and have seen many changes in that period. I’ve seen many ideas and approaches transfer from one discipline to the other, and consider the two communities to be closely related. But beneath the superficial associations there are some significant differences that fundamentally influence the dynamics of the two communities.
Search, or Information Retrieval in its broadest sense, represents an activity has clear touchpoints on the lives of many diverse professions across a variety of organisational contexts. If search engines didn’t exist, then human resources would still be deployed to perform the functions they provide (albeit somewhat less efficiently). In this respect, search is embedded in the fabric of many organisations, creating a common vocabulary and set of professional practices for the individuals within them.
Text analytics, by contrast, is quite different. The primary challenges within the NLP community have traditionally been tasks such as word sense disambiguation, named entity recognition, anaphora resolution, and so on. How many of these have tangible counterparts outside of the research lab? How often are human resources routinely deployed to undertake such tasks as part of normal business operations? With the possible exceptions of speech recognition (e.g. captioning services for broadcast media) and machine translation (e.g. of EU parliamentary proceedings), the answer would seem to be very few. NLP just does not touch on the lives of diverse professionals in the same way as IR. Even a cursory glance at the frequencies with which these terms appear in Google Books Ngram Viewer would seem to indicate a differential of around 5-6 over the last decade (in favour of IR):
So maybe the difference in the sizes between the two groups is a reflection of the natural order of things. That said, I am convinced that there are many more individuals in London & the South East working in NLP / text analytics who would benefit from a closer association with their peers. With that in mind, I’ll be twisting a few arms in the near future to get the best we can out of the MeetUp group. Watch this space for updates :)