A data-driven future: Informatics finds place in different academic fields

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As founding co-president of #DataDawgs, an informatics student club focused on data analysis, Maanasa Ghantasala, a sophomore computer systems engineering major from Alpharetta, thinks that informatics will play an important role in all industries.

“Every firm or every organization has some amount of data about its consumers,” Ghantasala said. “When we analyze this data, it can give us a lot of information about things we haven’t even thought of before.”

UGA defines informatics as “a broad field that encompasses the collection, classification, storage, retrieval, analysis and dissemination of massive data sets.”

According to the UGA press release, informatics could be useful in genome studies for medicine and agriculture, political polling information from Internet data and financial market and other economic analyses. 

“These applications will prove to be pretty useful across a lot of different fields,” Ghantasala said.

To cater to the interests of Ghantasala and other students like her, and to bring the growing field of informatics to UGA, Georgia Informatics Institute for Research and Education began in the fall of 2016.

According to Kyle Johnsen, the director of GII which is housed within the College of Engineering, the need for the GII was determined by the informatics planning committee.

“The committee recommended its formation based on meetings with advisory boards, which include alumni, students and faculty, as well as surveys distributed to department heads and deans across campus,” Johnsen said.

According to the Johnsen, GII is a network of three institutes: the Institute of Bioinformatics, the Health Informatics Institute, and the Institute for Cyber-Security and Privacy. Each of the institutes reports to their respective colleges but are linked through joint faculty partnerships.

“The value of being an institue, relative to a center, is that in addition to having a research focus, we can create and govern academic programs such as courses, certificates, minors and majors,” Johnsen said.

The GII offers an undergraduate Certificate in Informatics which includes one foundational informatics course and four discipline-specific informatics courses.

According to UGA’s GII website, “the purpose of GII is to help faculty use informatics as a tool to help answer research questions while making it easier for them to incorporate informatics into their instruction.”

Despite GII’s young age, informatics is not a new area of concentration for the university.

In 2015, a Presidential Informatics Hiring Initiative brought eight new informatics faculty members to campus. They work within seven departments and five of the university’s schools and colleges. Overall, UGA has more than 160 faculty members who apply informatics to a diverse set of fields.

Mariam Hammadui, a senior Computer Systems Engineering from Watkinsville and #DataDawg co-president, said student interest in informatics is high after tabling for #DataDawg.

“It’s really interesting because you would think only engineering or computer science majors are interested in informatics, but we have a lot of business students, and students from all over campus,” Hammadui said. “Informatics is something you can relate to pretty much any field.”

Johnsen agrees that nearly every field is engaged in informatics at some level and has been for some time.

“The difference nowadays is the level of informatics literacy and skill required to realize the benefits of massive digitization,” he said. “For most UGA departments and colleges, there are currently at least a few faculty who have such expertise and are already a part of the GII. As clusters emerge, new centers and institutes will form and the GII network will grow. “

However, Johnsen’s vision for the GII extends beyond additional academic offerings, centers and institutes.

“I envision the GII becoming a more externally facing entity at UGA,” Johnsen said. “There are few topics so cross-cutting as informatics to our industry and government stakeholders. We can deliver value to them in several ways, including workforce and professional development, infrastructure, and, of course, basic science and applied research.”

As far as what GII can add to a student’s education, Hammadui knows that studying informatics and computer systems will help her make a meaningful impact after graduation.

“It’s important to me because learning in this field gives me a lot of power no matter what field I end up working in,” Hammadui said. “You would think you have to be a doctor to help people, but you can still help people with computer science or computer engineering through informatics.”

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