What is Informatics?

Informatics studies the application of information technology to practically any field, while considering its impact on individuals, organizations, and society. It uses computation as a universal tool to solve problems in other fields, to communicate, and to express ideas.

Formally, informatics is the study of the structure and behavior of natural and artificial systems that generate, process, store, and communicate information. Informatics also includes:

  • the study of the cognitive, social, legal, and economic impact of information systems,
  • research and development of technologies needed to implement artificial information systems that enhance our cognitive abilities, and
  • the development and use of advanced information systems in science, engineering, arts, humanities, education, and business.

Because so much information can be stored digitally, we can manipulate it by computer. And because there is so much information, computing is often the only way to make information beneficial to humanity.

The ability to handle vast amounts of information cheaply has changed the way we live. Advances in computing power, the World Wide Web, search engines, and large-scale collaborative initiatives like Wikipedia have revolutionized the way knowledge is created and shared. We have new forms of social interaction — from email, IM, and blogs to eBay, Facebook, and YouTube — and collaborative art and entertainment — from Limewire and podcasts to Guitar Hero and Second Life. Information technology (IT) has become a ubiquitous, indispensable component of our everyday lives, helping — or hindering — us as we manage information, create knowledge, and make decisions.

Within the humanities, digital content is changing the way we visualize, present, understand, and experience history and literature. Within the fine arts, artists are using high-tech tools to construct virtual worlds, produce animations, and make music. Within the social, biological, and physical sciences, pattern analysis, data mining, visualization of massive data sets, and large-scale simulation of biological and physical processes, are enabling new discoveries and insights.

To leverage these advances to solve problems across all disciplines requires knowledge of how to represent problems and domain-specific data, how to structure processes, how to handle work-flow, how to manage complexity, and how to interpret results. To fully participate as an informed member of society, we must appreciate the historical, ethical, and social ramifications of these accelerating changes.

Informatics addresses all of these issues and provides tools for handling them.

What are some examples of Informatics topics?

The article “Why an Informatics Degree?” from the February 2010 Communications of the ACM contains a good discussion of what informatics is and its relationship to computer science:

  • Collaboration – wikis, Wikipedia, genome projects
  • Social – email, IM, blogs, Facebook, Twitter
  • Art – animation, virtual reality, electronic music
  • Entertainment – podcasts, games, YouTube, iTunes
  • Ethics – Privacy, downloading of digital content
  • Communication – Web, user interfaces, wireless
  • Data – Pattern analysis, data mining, visualization, simulation, search
  • GIS – Google Earth, mapping, location-aware applications
  • Business – eCommerce, eBay, PayPal, targeted advertising