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Smarter Searches: Technology Merges Images, Data and Knowledge

Friday, April 17th 2009
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Summary:

A team at the University of Texas in Dallas is working to merge evolving semantic Web technology and GIS. The goal is to take advantage of machine-understandable content, not just “dumb” words, and combine it with maps and other visualizations to build better searches. Who’s interested in that? A long list of federal agencies, which have put up the money to fund the research. Oh, and it may benefit other Web users, too.

Let's say you're looking for a one-bedroom apartment in northeast Dallas that has a grocery store, Catholic church and health club within walking distance, costs less than $800 a month and has both high-speed Internet access and a low crime rate.

Finding that dream apartment could take awhile right now. But technology under development by UT Dallas researchers aims to speed such a search, enabling people to find the perfect place today and move in tomorrow.

Is that soon enough for you?

Whether you've just arrived to start studies at a university or you're expected to start a new job on the other side of the country on Tuesday, there's a good chance that sooner or later you'd make use of such technology. Which is why Latifur Khan and his team of graduate students at UT Dallas are working to provide options that take such Web searches to the next level.

"The tools we are developing utilize information regarding all the things that various people look for when searching for a place to live," said Dr. Khan, an associate professor of computer science at the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT Dallas.

The secret lies in merging evolving semantic Web technology with geospatial information systems.

The semantic Web is a smarter Web in which online content will be machine-understandable, enabling computers to process the meaning of words and phrases - and the thoughts they express - rather than simply searching for keywords and phrases. Combine that with maps, photos and other visual information, and what would otherwise be a complex search is greatly simplified.

"We initially developed tools that showed apartment listings on a map in a manner that would simplify the process of searching for an apartment," Dr. Khan said. "The challenges that confronted the user grew out of the raw and unstructured nature of the documents. We had to deal with postings of all kinds of data, some having a physical address, some having links to Google/Yahoo maps and others having the name of a locality that only existing residents might be familiar with."

Dr. Khan's goal has been to create software that extracts useful information from this array of content using a standard reference, the U.S. Gazetteer. His team's work includes what's called the disambiguation of names, establishing whether "Paris," for example, refers to a city in France, a town in Texas, a famous socialite or the guy who made off with Helen.

"As we make progress with our tools," Dr. Khan said, "we will add new features such as locations of grocery stores, churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, hospitals and other buildings of interest. We are also working toward showing crime statistics for the neighborhood. Our goal is to integrate the crime reports provided by the various police departments on their respective Web sites, update these reports continuously and summarize them based on a time window that makes sense to users."

The work is funded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and Raytheon Corp. as well as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) and is being performed in collaboration with researchers from University of Minnesota.

The research has already received quite a bit of attention from other experts in the field, according to Bhavani Thuraisingham, head of the Jonsson School's Cyber Security Research Center.

"In addition to publishing papers in several premier journals and presenting results at conferences such as the Association for Computing Machinery's International Conference on Advances in Geographic Information Systems with researchers from the University of Minnesota, the team is also developing tools jointly with Raytheon and demonstrating them at major government conferences," she said.

The team has already developed a system called DAGIS (Discovering Annotated Geospatial Information Services), a semantic Web framework for geospatial information that the team subsequently extended to handle queries related to police blotter data. The team is now developing algorithms to facilitate integration of additional geospatial data. The team has also been presenting research results at government technology exchange conferences, and recently Ph.D. student Jeffrey Partyka discussed the work at IARPA's Knowledge Discovery and Dissemination Symposium at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"These presentations and demonstrations have given us lot of visibility not only with the research community, but also with the government, vendor and standards communities," Dr. Khan said. "Our former student Ganesh Subbiah was highly sought after by geospatial companies and now works for ESRI, a leading geospatial information systems company. We're also a member of the Open Geospatial Consortium and have given presentations at the consortium's meetings."

Dr. Khan's team also regularly collaborates with Dean Brian J.L. Berry, Fang Qiu and others in the UT Dallas School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.

"They bring strong geographic information systems expertise, which, combined with our information management expertise, make us a powerful team," he said.

The School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science jointly offer master's, doctoral and graduate certificate programs in Geospatial Information Sciences.

Geospatial technology is a key component of Dr. Thuraisingham's broad emphasis in knowledge discovery and security informatics, which includes four professors and nearly 50 graduate students.

"About 50 percent of our work focuses on ‘catching the bad guys' and 50 percent on protecting data," she said. "We are developing particularly strong expertise in the semantic Web, data mining, data security and social network analysis."

The team consisting of Dr. Thuraisingham, Dr. Khan and their computer science colleagues Murat Kantarcioglu and Kevin Hamlen have brought in more than $9 million in contracts and grants in the past four years, including a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) Young Investigator Research Program grant and a Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative award as well as additional grants from the NSF, the NGA, NASA, AFOSR, IARPA and the Office of Naval Research.

"We plan to expand our collaborations with additional companies and agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army Research Office, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology," Dr. Thuraisingham added.

Ed. note: This article originally appeared on the University of Texas - Dallas News Center's website on April 10, 2009, and is reprinted here with permission.

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