Informatics (academic field)

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A computer used at China's 2002 National Olympiad in Informatics
Informatics is the science of information, the practice of information processing, and the engineering of information systems.[1] Informatics studies the structure, algorithms, behavior, and interactions of natural and artificial systems that store, process, access, and communicate information. It also develops its own conceptual and theoretical foundations and utilizes foundations developed in other fields. Since the advent of computers, individuals and organizations increasingly process information digitally. This has led to the study of informatics that has computational, cognitive, and social aspects, including study of the social impact of information technologies.[1]

While the field of informatics encompasses the study of systems that represent, process, and communicate information, the theory of computation in the specific discipline of theoretical computer science which evolved from Alan Turing studies the notion of a complex system regardless of whether information actually exists. Since both fields process information, there is some disagreement among scientists as to field hierarchy. For example, Arizona State University attempted to adopt a broader definition of informatics to even encompass cognitive science at the launch of its School of Computing and Informatics in September 2006.[2]

The confusion arises since information can be easily stored on a computer, and hence informatics could be considered the parent of computer science. However, the original notion of a computer was the name given to the action of computation regardless of the existence of information or the existence of a Von Neumann architecture. Humans are examples of computational systems and not information systems. Many fields such as quantum computing theory are studied in theoretical computer science but not related to informatics.

A practitioner of informatics may be called an informatician or an informaticist.


In 1957 the German computer scientist Karl Steinbuch coined the word Informatik by publishing a paper called Informatik: Automatische Informationsverarbeitung ("Informatics: Automatic Information Processing").[3] The English term informatics is sometimes understood as meaning the same as computer science. However, the German word Informatik is the correct translation of the English phrase computer science. (The naming for computer science is derived from the concept of computation, which may or may not involve the existence of information. For example, quantum computation and digital logic do not involve information.)

The French term informatique was coined in 1962 by Philippe Dreyfus[4] together with various translations — informatics (English), also proposed independently and simultaneously by Walter F. Bauer and associates who co-founded Informatics Inc., and informatica (Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, Dutch), referring to the application of computers to store and process information. The term was coined as a combination of "information" and "automatic" to describe the science of automating information interactions.

The morphology—informat-ion + -ics—uses "the accepted form for names of sciences, as conics, linguistics, optics, or matters of practice, as economics, politics, tactics", and so, linguistically, the meaning extends easily to encompass both the science of information and the practice of information processing.


This new term was adopted across Western Europe, and, except in English, developed a meaning roughly translated by the English "computer science" or "computing science." Mikhailov et al. advocated the Russian term informatika (1966), and the English informatics (1967), as names for the theory of scientific information and argued for a broader meaning, including study of the use of information technology in various communities and of the interaction of technology and human organizational structures:

Informatics is the discipline of science which investigates the structure and properties (not specific content) of scientific information, as well as the regularities of scientific information activity, its theory, history, methodology and organization.[5]

Usage has since modified this definition in three ways. First, the restriction to scientific information is removed, as in business informatics or legal informatics. Second, since most information is now digitally stored, computation is now central to informatics. Third, the representation, processing and communication of information are added as objects of investigation, since they have been recognized as fundamental to any scientific account of information. Taking information as the central focus of study, then, distinguishes informatics, which includes the study of biological and social mechanisms of information processing, from computer science, where digital computation plays a distinguished central role. Similarly, in the study of representation and communication, informatics is indifferent to the substrate that carries information. For example, it encompasses the study of communication using gesture, speech and language, as well as digital communications and networking.

The first example of a degree-level qualification in informatics occurred in 1982 when Plymouth Polytechnic (now the University of Plymouth) offered a four-year BSc (honours) degree in "Computing and Informatics," with an initial intake of only 35 students. The course still runs today, making it the longest available qualification in the subject.[citation needed]

In 1989, the first International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) — a competition of the brightest informatics students around the world — was held in Bulgaria.[6] The competition involved two days of intense competition, with up to four students selected from each participating country to attend and compete for the highest score on a variety of informatics problems.[7]

Changing definitions

The definition of informatics has seen many variations across different institutions:

  • The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, of the U.K. Funding Councils, includes a new Computer Science and Informatics unit of assessment (UoA),[8] the scope of which is described as follows:
The UoA includes the study of methods for acquiring, storing, processing, communicating and reasoning about information, and the role of interactivity in natural and artificial systems, through the implementation, organisation and use of computer hardware, software and other resources. The subjects are characterised by the rigorous application of analysis, experimentation and design.
  • At the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing in Indianapolis and Southeast, informatics is defined as "the art, science and human dimensions of information technology" and "“the study and application of information technology to the arts, science and professions."[9][10] These definitions are generally accepted in the United States and differ from British usage in omitting the study of natural computation.
  • At the University of California, Irvine, informatics is defined thusly[11]:
Informatics is based on recognizing that the design of this technology is not solely a technical matter, but must focus on the relationship between the technology and its use in real-world settings. That is, informatics designs solutions in context, and takes into account the social, cultural and organizational settings in which computing and information technology will be used.
  • At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, defines it as a "coupling [of] information with computing technology," adding[12]:
Informatics provides solid grounding in computer programming, mathematics, and statistics, combined with study of the ethical and social science aspects of complex information systems. Informatics majors learn to critically analyze various approaches to processing information and develop skills to design, implement, and evaluate the next generation of information technology tools.

Applications of informatics

In the English-speaking world the term informatics was first widely used in the applied sense as "medical informatics," taken to include "the cognitive, information processing, and communication tasks of medical practice, education, and research, including information science and the technology to support these tasks."[13] Many such compounds are now in use; they can be viewed as different areas of applied informatics.

In the 2000s, a major area of applied informatics is that of organizational informatics. Organizational informatics is fundamentally interested in the application of information, information systems and ICT within organizations of various forms, including private sector, public sector, and voluntary sector organizations.[14][15] As such, organizational informatics can be seen to be sub-category of social informatics and a super-category of business informatics.

By 2004, the field of laboratory informatics — the specialized application of information technology to optimize and extend laboratory operations — began emerging as a more distinct area of applied informatics.[16]

Contributing disciplines

  • Computer science
  • Communication studies
  • Complex systems
  • Didactics of informatics
  • Information science
  • Information theory
  • Information technology

Further reading

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gammack, John; Valerie Hobbs; Diarmuid Pigott (2011). "Chapter 0: What Is Informatics?". The Book of Informatics (1st Revised ed.). Cengage Learning. pp. 1–3. ISBN 0170216004. 
  2. "Sci Monitor - Fall 2006" (PDF). School of Computing and Informatics, Arizona State University. Fall 2006. p. 4–5. Archived from the original on 2 January 2007.*/ Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  3. Steinbuch, Karl (1957). "Informatik: Automatische Informationsverarbeitung". SEG-Nachrichten (Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen) 22 (4). 
  4. Cronin, Blaise (2007). Annual Review of Information Science & Technology. Information Today, Inc.. p. 596. ISBN 157387308X. 
  5. Mikhailov, A.I.; A.I. Chernyl; R.S. Gilyarevskii (1966). "Informatika – novoe nazvanie teorii naučnoj informacii". Naučno tehničeskaja informacija (12): 35–39. 
  6. "The 1st International Olympiad in Informatics". International Olympiad in Informatics. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  7. "About Us". International Olympiad in Informatics. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  8. "UoA 23, Computer Science and Informatics" (PDF). U.K. Funding Councils. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  9. "Informatics Defined". IUPUI School of Informatics. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  10. "IU Southeast Informatics Program". IU Southeast. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  11. "Questions & answers > 1. What is informatics?". UC-Irvine's Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  12. "About informatics". University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  13. Greenes, R.A.; E.H. Shortliffe (1990). "Medical Informatics: An emerging discipline with academic and institutional perspectives". Journal of the American Medical Association 263 (8): 1114–1120. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440080092030. 
  14. Beynon-Davies, Paul (2002). Information Systems: An Introduction to Informatics in Organisations. Palgrave. ISBN 0333963903. 
  15. Beynon-Davies, Paul (2009). Business Information Systems. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 023020368X. 
  16. Perry, Douglas (December 2004). "Laboratory Informatics: Origin, Scope, and its Place in Higher Education". Journal of Laboratory Automation 9 (6). doi:10.1016/j.jala.2004.08.010.