07.08.13 – SUMMER SERIES (6) Three students have created a new software application, TrailHead, which allows users to sort through (possibly hundreds of) symposium presentation abstracts and create a personalized schedule that matches their scientific interests. The software application could also prove useful with major film or music festivals, where choosing from among the dozens of different possibilities can be quite a challenge.

Imagine yourself on a plane the evening before a symposium sifting through hundreds of presentation abstracts to decide which presentations to attend. How can you be sure that you won’t miss a talk relating to your field of research? Three students at the EPFL’s School of Computer and Communication Sciences have invented a software application called TrailHead, which uses a visualization system to sort through this information. With their software application, Jonas Arnfred, Amine Mansour and Yannik Messerli have found a way to target presentations according to specific scientific interests. Already used at symposiums, the TrailHead web interface received 1,472 visits in 2012.

An algorithm as a magical formula
In order to sort through a large group of presentations, the students developed an algorithm based on text recognition and semantic analysis. Jonas Arnfred, the student who initiated the project, enthusiastically explains: “One of the exciting aspects of TrailHead is that we had to combine several methods from different disciplines – such as automatic text extraction, automatic learning or graphic design – to produce a very concrete tool.” The first step was to gather the various articles on individual presentations to be given at the same symposium. The next step was to automatically convert these articles into raw data that could be recognized by the future software application.

Amine Mansour, who later joined the project, continues: “It was not an easy matter to find an algorithm that could calculate similarities between articles and therefore link the presented subjects to specific research fields.” He first tested an algorithm that could detect word similarities and calculate the number of occurrences of the same terms in these texts. It later became apparent that an additional algorithm was needed to assess lexical fields so that groups of words associated with the same research field could be identified.

A well-designed and practical visualization system
Instead of producing a copious list of dozens of presentation abstracts, the application proposes a map of the various presentations linked according to subject matter. “The difficulty of this method of visualization was to make it both intuitive and fluid,” explains Yannik Messerli, who set about creating a web interface that would be compatible with the greatest possible array of peripherals. “An algorithm graphically outputs the conference presentations to make closely related subjects appear grouped together.”

TrailHead generates a personalized symposium schedule
Once you have selected the desired research field(s) and have clicked on the presentations that the software application suggests that you attend (based on the criteria selected), TrailHead allows you to generate a personalized symposium schedule and choose from among various options (e.g. add presentation abstracts to schedule). It also has a feature that lets you synchronize your schedule with your electronic agenda.

“We have continuously worked to improve this software application by introducing more powerful search filters as well as other features. The project has been quite an undertaking – 2 years – and has enabled us to earn a living during most of our studies. We are very thankful to our Professor,Ruediger Urbanke, for having guided and supported the project,” explains Yannik. Amine adds: “The interesting aspect is that we were given the opportunity to create a specific tool from start to finish and now this tool is being used by the scientific community.”

Indeed, TrailHead was used for the first time in 2012 at the International Symposium on Information Theory (ISIT), which included 700 presentations and over 1,000 participants. The TrailHead web interface received 1,472 visits, with a peak in traffic of 563 hits five days before the start of the symposium. TrailHead was also used by participants in the Information Theory and Applications (ITA) 2013 symposium as well as in the ISIT 2013 symposium.

In the future, TrailHead could also prove useful to participants at festivals, enabling them to choose from among the various cultural events, concerts or open-air films over the summer. The students are currently considering the idea of creating a start-up company.


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