BlanQA the Practical QA Pipeline
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BlanQA is an OpenQA-based question answering pipeline meant for practical end-user usage in simple applications. Its goals are practicality, clean design and maximum simplicity.

BlanQA is developed as part of the Brmson platform and many of its components are based on the work of the good scientists at CMU (e.g. the helloqa prototype branch and the Ephyra project). Compared to their work, we shift our focus from systematic evaluation of experiments to interactive usage.

In its current version, it can interactively answer English questions by using knowledge stored in Project Gutenberg.

Installation Instructions

Quick instructions for setting up, building and running (focused on Debian Wheezy):

  • We assume that you cloned BlanQA and are now in the directory that contains this README.
  • sudo apt-get install default-jdk maven uima-utils
  • git clone && cd uima-ecd && { mvn install; cd ..; }
  • for i in opennlp netagger wordnet questionanalysis stanfordparser indices; do wget$; unzip res-$; done
  • wget; tar -C data -xf guten.tar.gz
  • mvn verify
  • mvn -q exec:java -Dexec.arguments="phases.blanqa"

Data Sources

The performance on the (default) Project Gutenberg corpus is actually not that good. But try asking e.g. about "Who wrote Hamlet?"

You can try asking questions about a smaller snippet of English text data/sample.txt by editing the passage-retrieval section of the configuration file src/main/resources/phases/blanqa.yaml - simply uncomment the textfile section and comment out the solrsentence section. Don't forget to rerun mvn verify after any modifications.

Wikipedia Data Source

It is not too difficult to use English Wikipedia as a data source, but it is very memory and IO intensive process. You will need about 80-100GiB of disk space and bandwidth to download 10GiB source file; indexing will require roughly 8GiB RAM.

To index and then search in Wikipedia, we need to set it up as a standalone Solr source:

Now, we simply need to tell Blanqa to use our standalone Solr source. Add this to the passage-retrieval phase:

  - inherit: phases.passage.solrsentence
    server: http://localhost:8983/solr/
    core: collection1

Design Considerations

BlanQA evolved from the "DSO project" of OAQA, mirroring its architecture to a degree, but simplifying and reorganizing its components.

BlanQA does not depend on the CSE infrastructure; we may make use of its successor "BagPipes" when it's ready if it makes sense.

A Brief Walkthrough

BlanQA (Brmson), as an instance of OAQA and akin to DeepQA (IBM Watson), processes the given question using a pipeline of components ("annotators" or here "phases" in particular), configured in the file:


The components work on a common object space (CAS) which they in turn fill up with data pertaining the question. The object space is typed, with the type system described as part of the baseqa project in file


and object instances in CAS called "featuresets".

The individual pipeline phases live in the phase package namespace and are basically as follows:

  • answertype considers the question text and guesses the type of the named entity (NE) to be returned as answer (e.g. person, location, ...). Guessed types are stored as featuresets in the CAS.
  • keyterm considers the question text and extracts keywords relevant to the subject matter to search for. Proposed keywords are stored as featuresets in the CAS.
  • passage searches available data sources for the proposed keywords, producing featuresets with a variety of English text snippets relevant to the subject matter and storing them in the CAS.
  • ie extracts (scored) candidate answers from the found passages. Typically, it splits them to sentences, annotates the sentences and then extracts named entities from them that match the guessed answer types. Scoring may be performed by measuring relevancy of the sentences, distance of named entities from keywords in the sentences, etc. Ideally, intermediate data should be stored in CAS but the reality is not so peachy. At any rate, candidate answers are stored in the CAS.
  • answer sorts all the candidate answers found in CAS and picks the highest scored one.

Of each stage, we may have multiple implementations running in parallel. So we can e.g. retrieve passages from Wikipedia, local data and Google, all within a single phase, spawning many later-indistinguishable "Passage" objects.

Ideally, all our intermediate data should live in CAS, operated on swarms of UIMA annotators; for rapid prototyping reasons, this is not always the case and in case of more complex phases, we make use of monolithical phases that use Java classes to talk to their components; these class data carriers live in packages. (Note that OpenQA however contains also some CAS object wrappers.)

We attempt to shield our phases from having to directly manipulate the CAS; the framework.jcas packages provide an abstraction for access to various classes of featuresets in the CAS.

Package Organization

We live in the cz.brmlab.brmson namespace, trying to reflect the OpenQA namespace structure to some degree. core pertains to generic OpenQA interfaces, in particular "core.provider" as a nice singleton-ish interface to external (NLP) libraries. takepig pertains to generic QA pipeline components, see below. blanqa then carries our particular pipeline implementation.

All these three namespaces share a similar internal structure.

Analysis Classes

In the long run, the classes of "blanqa.analysis" should graduate to UIMA annotators that work on various data (input sentence, search results, etc.).

That will improve scalability and reusability. However, for the sake of rapid development, they are simple Java classes for now. Still, they are aimed at maximum reusability across phase users.

Passage Retrieval

We began our testing with processing only tiny source datasets where we can consider the whole dataset as our input. But when mining large datasets (e.g. Project Guttenberg, Wikipedia, book texts etc.), we need to turn to some fulltext search solution.

The DSO project, which we have mostly copied, uses Lemur Indra for search and indexing. We decided to instead focus on SOLR since it offers way more active community (a ready-made recipe for straightforward Wikipedia import, etc.) and has a ready-made wrapper for OAQA while the Indra knowledge miner seems rather hackish. Plus, setting up Indra is a pain due to JNI hassles.

Of course, we can have multiple passage retrieval engines so porting Indra later may be useful.


The "takepig" package family is destined to be a small separate project but is going to live as a part of BlanQA in the beginning for convenience. It holds base classes of the traditional pipeline (TP) components and the supporting infrastructure (esp. the JCas interface).

The traditional pipeline here is:

  • Answer Type Extractor
  • Keyword Extractor
  • Passage Retrieval
  • Information Extractor
  • Answer Generator

The baseqa project was perhaps meant to hold these base classes, but it currently does not do a very good job of that and it's not so clear if it's not better to keep it unspecialized. And we are somewhat shy to smash our classes into the oaqa namespace.