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Last updated: 17 Jan 2022

search-api: learning-to-rank

We use a machine learning approach to improve search result relevance, using the TensorFlow Ranking module. This doc covers how to use it, and what additional work is required.

ADR-010 and ADR-011 cover the architectural decisions.

Running it locally

Set up

TensorFlow is written in Python 3, so you will need some libraries installed. The simplest way to do this is using virtualenv:

pip3 install virtualenv
virtualenv venv -p python3
source venv/bin/activate
pip install -r ltr/scripts/requirements-freeze.txt

This adjusts your shell's environment to use a local Python package database in the venv directory. If you close the shell, you can run source venv/bin/activate again to bring everything back.

Using LTR

Set the ENABLE_LTR environment variable to "true", or all of this is disabled.

There are several rake tasks for training and serving a TensorFlow model in the learn_to_rank namespace.

The learn_to_rank:generate_relevancy_judgements task needs the GOOGLE_PRIVATE_KEY and GOOGLE_CLIENT_EMAIL environment variables set. Values for these can be found in govuk-secrets. The task is run regularly and the generated judgements.csv file available in:

  • govuk-integration-search-relevancy
  • govuk-staging-search-relevancy
  • govuk-production-search-relevancy

In the future we will store more things in these buckets, like the trained models.

Assuming you have a judgements.csv file, you can generate a dataset for training the model:

bundle exec rake learn_to_rank:generate_training_dataset[judgements.csv]

This task needs to be run with access to Elasticsearch. If you're using govuk-docker the full command will be:

govuk-docker run -e ENABLE_LTR=true search-api-lite bundle exec rake 'learn_to_rank:generate_training_dataset[judgements.csv]'

Once you have the training dataset you can train and serve a model:

bundle exec rake learn_to_rank:reranker:train
bundle exec rake learn_to_rank:reranker:serve

These tasks do not need access to Elasticsearch.

You now have a docker container running and responding to requests inside the govuk-docker network at reranker:8501. You can start search-api with the ENABLE_LTR environment variable with:

govuk-docker run -e ENABLE_LTR=true search-api-app

If you query search-api then results will be re-ranked when you order by relevance. If this doesn't happen, check you're running search-api with ENABLE_LTR set.

You can disable re-ranking with the parameter ab_tests=relevance:disable.

The learn_to_rank:reranker:evaluate task can be used to compare queries without needing to manually search for things. It uses the same judgements.csv file.

Running it in production

In production the model training and deployment are automated through Jenkins, with the deployed model hosted in Amazon SageMaker. The Jenkins job executes the script ltr/jenkins/ and runs on the Deploy Jenkins.

The Jenkins job has four tasks, one for each environment, which:

  1. Spin up a EC2 instance and start an SSH session

  2. Generate datasets to train a new model. It does this by running the Search API application locally in a container on the EC2 instance and calling the relevant rake tasks.

  3. Call Amazon SageMaker's training API to create a new model from that training data, and store the model artefact in S3. This happens from the EC2 instance.

  4. Call Amazon SageMaker's deployment API to deploy the new model, removing the old model configuration (but leaving the artefact in S3). This happens from the EC2 instance.

The Jenkins job for each environment is triggered automatically at 10pm on Sundays.

All artefacts are stored in the relevancy S3 bucket: training data is under data/<timestamp>/ and model data under model/<training timestamp>-<timestamp>. Files are removed by a lifecycle policy after 7 days.


Reranking happens when ENABLE_LTR=true is set. The model is found by trying these options in order, going for the first one which succeeds:

  1. If TENSORFLOW_SAGEMAKER_ENDPOINT is set, Amazon SageMaker is used. It's assumed that search-api is running under a role which has permissions to invoke the endpoint.

  2. If TENSORFLOW_SERVING_IP is set, http:://<ip>::8501 is used.

  3. If RANK_ENV is development, http://reranker:8501 is used.

  4. is used.

When reranking is working, search-api results get three additional fields:

  • model_score: the score assigned by TensorFlow
  • combined_score: the score used for the final ranking
  • original_rank: how Elasticsearch ranked the result

We may remove combined_score in the future, as it's just the same as model_score.

Further work

  • Investigate window sizes for reranking (top-k)
  • Reduce the performance impact of reranking
  • Update the process for improving search relevance