UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2003
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Why informatics now?

By W. David Penniman
Dean, University at Buffalo School of Informatics

final word diagram
illustration by Tim Stegner

In 2001, the University at Buffalo became one of only two major universities in the United States to create a School of Informatics. While the term "informatics" has been in use in Europe since the 1960s, it has only recently found its way into the general vocabulary within the U.S. (An exception is the specialty area of medical informatics, which was defined years ago.) Today we see many specialty areas, including nursing informatics, social informatics and bioinformatics. But what is informatics, and why do we now show such interest in the general field?

By whatever name, there is a growing interest and concern with the way in which information and information technology shape human behavior and, conversely, the way human behavior shapes our development and application of information and information technology. These interests and concerns have helped to define informatics as a domain reaching well beyond a single discipline, such as computer science.

No set of events has demonstrated more clearly the need for informatics than the September 11 terrorist assault on the United States. At the onset of that terrible day, the nation's communication systems were functioning as expected, and daily routines were built around the expectation that they would continue to do so. By the end of the day, we had experienced a breakdown in our information systems that ranged from the failure of cell phones to the inability to maintain simple communication between fire and police command centers around the World Trade Center disaster site. Some failures were technically driven, while others were the result of long-standing organizational barriers.

If something of value can come from the test of our nation on 911, it should include a commitment to make our societal information and communication systems stronger and more resilient. That is where informatics can play a role. For this new field is not only focused on information technology, it is also a function of the people who must use as well as design such technology, and how they behave individually and as small groups, large groups and as a society in general. Therefore, when we institute something such as the U.S.A. Patriot Act (which requires universities to open student files to government officials without the student's permission, report on library books checked out by students and collect data on e-mail and voice mail traffic) in order to gain some increased security from terrorists within our own borders, informatics can play a role in helping to define the systems necessary to carry out the stipulations of that act.

 

It should also help us to evaluate the limits to which we are willing to go regarding sacrifices in personal freedom.

Our new School of Informatics, like the one at Indiana University, is focused on the emerging information technologies, as well as on the broader social implications of these technologies. While we concentrate our attention on three major domains—technology, information and people—our primary interest is the intersection of these elements. In other words, we are focused on connecting people with information and studying how technology can help to achieve that connection. Often, as we see in the breakdown of communication systems during a crisis, the issues are not only about technology, but also about organizational and individual behaviors. Our response to such concerns must take into account the full range of barriers creating the problem. For example, in the case of our national security, we must also consider our willingness individually and as a society to sacrifice some of our personal freedoms to gain security. When confronting this very issue in 1775, Benjamin Franklin said that they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Within the School of Informatics, we are beginning with the building blocks found in the disciplines of library and information science and communication. The acquisition, organization, storage and retrieval of information as typically done by library science are necessary but not sufficient parts of our field. Likewise the communication of information by interpersonal means and through mass media is insufficient to meet the needs of modern society. With this in mind, current studies in informatics include developing new approaches that respond to these realities.

Meanwhile, enrollments at the undergraduate and graduate levels continue to grow at UB. Our faculty also is growing and their research interests cover a wide range of technical and social issues. As we focus on producing the next wave of information professionals, we give our students grounding in technology, as well as in organizational and individual communication, team-based skills, and in ethical and privacy concerns around information design and use. As they embark on their careers, these graduates have an understanding of the traditions of a democratic society in protecting our freedoms, as well as continuing enhancements of our information systems; that is why we need informatics now.

Penniman   Dean of the School of Informatics since 2001, W. David Penniman holds a doctorate in communication theory from Ohio State University, along with a master's in journalism and bachelor's in mechanical engineering, both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has served as a consultant in knowledge management and information systems, a professor and director of the Center for Information Studies, University of Tennessee; president of a nonprofit foundation, director of information services at Bell Laboratories and vice president for planning and research at OCLC, an international library computer network.


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