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Unity to Ship with Smarter Dash Search in 13.04

'Crowd Sourced Relevancy' To Power New Scopes API

brainChanges to the way results are delivered into in Unity’s Dash are on their way to Ubuntu 13.04.

In an attempt to both broaden the types of data that can be searched from the Dash and increase the relevancy of results, Ubuntu and Canonical are to introduce some major improvements to the Scopes API.

“‘We want to expand the number of installed scopes so when you search something in the dash it can pull back a variety of results – but results that a relevant to you,’ explains Jono Bacon.

‘In 13.04 we will have a much more diverse search experience.’

So how will it do this?

How It Works

Chiefly, queries made in the Dash will now pass through a central server maintained by Canonical, along with a list of the Scopes (‘search engines’) you have installed on your computer.

The server will then pair up your query with the most relevant Scopes – be they remote or locally installed – and pass this information back to Unity.

Only the Scopes suggested by the Smart Scope Service will be triggered to deliver results, making the Dash perform quickly despite as many as 100 Scopes being available.

All Scopes are ‘terminated’ when the Dash closes; none are left running in the background to sap on bandwidth or memory.

Local results – your files, photos and documents, etc – are given greater priority in results.

Crowd Sourcing Relevancy

The Dash will learn what results from what scopes are most relevant to users…

The interesting bit in these changes is the way in which relevancy is deduced.

The Smart Scope Service – the remote brain of the Dash – will ‘learn’ what results from what scopes are most relevant based on what you and other users click on.

Think of it as ‘crowd-sourcing’ relevancy.

But what if you have installed a brand spankin’ new Scope that the server might not yet know about?

Again, the server is able to learn about it. And if it proves relevant, and other users have it too, results for it will be triggered.

Being Specific

You don’t have to solely rely on a remote brain to decide what is relevant and what isn’t. Say you want to search for ‘Doctor Who’ but only in music.

The Dash, in a Google-esque way, allows you to prefix a search term with the Scope name to be specific:

So, for example you would search:

music: doctor who

This would only return results from the Music Scope.

100 Scopes

As many as 100 Scopes will with Ubuntu 13.04 by default, with eBay, Etsy, Soundcloud, Yelp, DeviantArt, Grooveshark, Google Drive, IMDb amongst them.

Results from many of these will integrate with Unity Previews, allowing you to preview an image, watch a trailer, or listen to a track without needing to open a browser.

Remember, Scopes are best through of as little ‘Search Engines’. They are not lenses. So if this news made you gulp with fear as the thought of 100 mini-icons straddling the bottom of the Dash, take a breath and relax.

Privacy

If this all sounds like a privacy time-bomb waiting to happen you can relax. The furore surrounding the ‘Amazon Lens’ in 12.10 has seen privacy placed at the forefront of this development.

Privacy proponents will be glad to hear:

  • Controls for turning off specific scopes on a one-by-one basis
  • Data collected by the Scope Server (and where it’s sent to) is fully documented online
  • Only IP address is logged, but not in a way that makes it identifiable (or useful) to developers
  • It’s claimed1 that Scope searches will be ‘more private than Googling’
  • Opt-out option for Smart Scope Service.

Canonical are also making the ‘Online’ element of Unity more explicit:

  • The Dash search box will read: “search your computer and online sources”
  • The BFB shows a similarly worded tool-tip

When Can We Try it?

If you’re itching to try the new and improved Dash out you don’t have long to wait. Ubuntu developers have said that the new API and default Scopes will be uploaded to Ubuntu 13.04 Daily in the next few weeks.

Do you like the sound of these changes? Is the Dash finally becoming what you’d hoped? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Further technical information on the changes can be read on the Ubuntu Wiki.

1Alan Bell, The Open Sourcerer