NET LOG

With New Search Tool, the Game Is Afoot

John Makulowich

Given free rein over content and format, I often thought it would be great fun to teach a course about online searching using any one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Included in my reading list would be such classics as "The Speckled Band," "The Red-Headed League," "The Dancing Men" and "The Final Problem."

Well, researchers at Northwestern University's Intelligent Information Laboratory (The InfoLab) have gone one step further. They just released a beta version of their online search tool called Watson, which you can download from their Web site at infolab.nwu.edu/watson.

The 414 kilobyte, zipped file produced by Jay Budzik, an InfoLab graduate student, is a personal information management system that works with a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, and a word processing application, such as Microsoft's Word or Corel's WordPerfect.

The tool shows a strong family resemblance to intelligent agents such as Microsoft's Office Assistant, which pops up when you hit the F1 key, or the Cybrarian character, who could "condense fact from the vapor of nuance," portrayed in Neal Stephenson's popular science fiction novel, "Snow Crash."

As you prepare a research project, for example, the Watson tool can search the Internet and other sources, making suggestions as you proceed. The Java application can work in the background or be available as a prompted search tool, uncovering not only text, but also pictures and graphics.

Once you download and install the application, it links to Microsoft's Internet Explorer and performs searches as you work. According to the InfoLab, a version for Netscape will soon be available.

In this beta release, Watson is accessible only from within the Web browser, specifically Microsoft Internet Explorer. The programmers recommend using Internet Explorer 5. You will know the program is installed correctly if you see a light bulb icon on the toolbar. This allows you to toggle the tool on and off. Once the program is started, a debug window displays. You can minimize it while Watson is running.


Given the results the tool returned, the user selects what to investigate further. The program also filters information, sorting and analyzing source and retrieved documents for content while removing redundant URLs. It also clusters results into categories.

A preliminary version of the Watson Beta Release for Windows with Internet Explorer 5 was released in August. The technical underpinnings of the program are detailed in a number of papers, including one produced this year by Budzik and K. J. Hammond named "Watson: Anticipating and Contextualizing Information Needs." It appeared in the Proceedings of the 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science.

The researchers warn that the tool may not function with certain versions of Internet Explorer 4. In any event, those using that version must start Watson manually by using the mouse to click on the start shortcut in the Watson directory located on the hard drive. Program bugs should be reported to this e-mail address: jlbudzik??bug@infolab.nwu.edu


To contact John, send e-mail to john@journalist.com; his Web address is www.cais.com/makulow/

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