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Important Skills for Informaticians

August 18, 2006

A lot of people ask me about what I study.  When I tell them “Informatics”, they usually have no idea of what I’m talking about, or if they’re from Western Europe, they have the wrong idea.  Wikipedia does its best to sort things out, but the whole notion is still confusing.

Even IU, which could be said to have introduced the term in the US, chooses to explain Informatics in terms of “where it happens“, rather than “what it is”.  However, teaching for specific situations and contexts goes against the grain of a “university education”, which is supposed to impart some notion of an underlying theory.  Furthermore, the HCI/d department at Informatics has become focused  on establishing itself as a design program, with an emphasis on developing designerly “skills”, rather than focusing on a single core theory.

The two approaches are very much at odds, and attempts at collaboration between disciplines are often met with a degree of frustration.  It is especially difficult to determine what should be taught to incoming students.  Should there be a core of classes or skills that all “informaticians” are competent at?  Since I’ve had some experiences working on design projects in HCI, as well as research in more scientific areas such as network theory, I thought I might throw in my two cents.

First of all, I’d like to consider the word science, which is derived or related to “scindere”, the latin word for “cut”.  We also get “scissors” and “shit” from this same word… the general meaning is to seperate or distinguish.  Compare this with the root for design, which roughly means “to mark”.  We get “designation” and other metaphoric variations from this word as well.

We’ve got two actions here: cutting and marking (drawing/writing).   One is essentially destructive/descriptive, while the other is constructive/creative.  One is focused on breaking something down into component parts or quantitative pieces, while the other is focused on assembling pieces into a coherent whole.  These two actions are very different.  However, this does not necessarily mean that individuals from both fields cannot work together.

What I would propose is to design graded projects for the informatics students that leverage both of these activities.  This could involve dealing with interfaces that must leverage complex information.  The project would be broken down into the two component parts:  Some sort of data gathering/analysis phase, where the “cutters” do their work, and then the “design” phase takes place.  This phase should involve an arrangement that either utilizes or is informed by the data gathered in the previous phase.  Students would be required to participate in at least one of the phases, but students that show potential in both phases should be encouraged to engage in both sides of the activity.  I’m sort of at a loss for project ideas currently, but I could imagine that several reasonable examples could be drawn up in short notice.  Even though these projects may seem awkward, and lack a corrolary in real life, I think that they would be valuable educational tools.  It is important to understand what the “other side” (design/science) is doing, and what (if any) impact or influence they have on your work.  Creating an awareness, understanding, and hopefully appreciation of the “other side” will presumably lead to a much higher level of quality for informatics projects, and this would be a valuable experience to have for an informatician, no matter how they define themselves.

P.S. Comments are working once more, thanks to Richie’s nifty captcha code. I’m very sorry if you have a vision impairment and cannot read the captcha code, but this is the only way I’m aware of to get rid of comment spam.

From → Informatics

  1. On the subject of spam, Akismet’s plugin – an automatic part of a WordPress install – has been wonderful. The spam went away overnight. While some still gets in, it is easy to identify and has the added bonus of notifying the WordPress blogging community at large of a specific spammer, thus removing it from other author sites.

    There is something that might be equally effective (and easier on the account management) … I have been meaning to try this out, but got tied up in other projects. It is a reputation-based universal account system. Whereas Akismet seems to focus on errant posts, this would focus on reputable readers.

  2. … and to the main content of this post, I think that is a very useful observation. Informatics is about cut-and-paste (although I guess that term brings up the wrong connotation here, as something that is all action and little thought).

    You should talk more with Eli Blevis about his ideas for Sustainable Design. As you know, he is influenced greatly by Frye’s ideas that creation is an act of destruction. Eli wants to focus on quantifying the sustainability of a design and to make conscious thought of what is being destroyed by it to be a part of the design process. That speaks well to the “cut” part of your vision.

  3. Justin permalink

    Thanks for the comments. Fighting spam is not much fun, and I hope this system will at least allow people to offer “on topic” harrassment if they feel the need.

    The notion of “sustainable design” is tightly paired with environmental concerns.

    However, I find many of the sustainable “solutions” are extremely myopic, and cater more towards political “hoo-hah” then towards a lasting benefit. There are always exceptions, but situations like the Prius seem to be the norm:

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