Clark and Parsia’s suggestion to periodically write up ideas and share them seems like a good one, so I thought I’d try as well. These days I seem to be involved in the creation of new academic fields – such as Web Science (cf. http://webscience.org and the Web Science conference) – and this one sort of popped into my head in response to a call for “innovative engineering” areas for NSF to consider. Have at it…
Information Systems Engineering
Subdisciplines of engineering have developed as new materials or techniques have been discovered that had potential revolutionary impact on society. For example, in the early 1800s, the transition from electricity as a curiosity to a commodity was made possible by the emergence of electrical engineering; radiation went from a parlor trick to a world-changing force thanks to nuclear engineering; and the advent of computing machines in the mid 1900s led to the need for the modern computer engineering department.
In the late 1900s and early 2000s, the analogous revolutionary medium is the information that powers modern computer applications, engineering simulations, sensor networks, and the World Wide Web. In the 1980s, there was a move to create a field of “information engineering,”  but it primarily led to the development of business processes around databases, as at the time information was seen as locked into a single application or process. With the growth of the Web, however, there has been an increasing modern awareness that the information that arises from the interaction of the more than 1 billion Web users needs to be understood at a new level [2,3].
As with electricity or radiation, this new substance has mostly been studied “in the small” and there is a clear need for a much more significant understanding if we are to determine the principles of its use. For example, as science becomes increasingly internationalized and large scale (cf the Large Hadron Collider), we must being to understand how the data produced can be processed into usable information, and how that information can be stored, scaled, combined, and exchanged between systems. Just as we needed to learn to move from ad hoc Voltaic cells to develop the electrical engineering principles that drive our modern world, we must learn how to engineer tomorrow’s large scale, and collaborative, information systems.
The principles of information systems engineering will be those that will drive key parts of our future society. Intelligent vehicle systems will be crucially dependent on the ability of individual vehicles to communicate with each other and with central controllers; sensor networks will become far more useful as we learn to make them dynamically reconfigurable to the needs of applications; educational systems must be able to derive their power from cutting-edge, real-world systems, like the LHC, rather than from toy simulations that miss the key properties. As the Web grows, the information needs of society will increase exponentially, and techniques that make the modern search engine look like a toy will be needed if it is to be of use. Mobile computing, large scale information design, cloud-based software, and many other applications also will need a more principled understanding of information and its flows – the challenges are incredible, and the potential amazing.
Currently, information has been primarily viewed as the providence of database systems, and while these are an important part of the story, they are no means sufficient. The III program at NSF (CISE/IIS) is exploring some parts of information use, but primarily from an algorithmic, rather than engineering, perspective. Much as computer design moved from computer science to computer engineering, and much as current ECSE departments study vision, robotics and other topics jointly under sponsorship between parts of ENG and parts of CISE, so too must the development of a modern engineering discipline for information flows and large scale information-based systems.
ENG and CISE, working together, have the potential to create the joint engineering teams, needed to develop a principled approach to the design of large-scale information-systems. This is an important area, as a firm and fundamental engineering approach is needed for the development of the large-scale applications that have become so critical to our modern world.
 Finkelstein, Clive. 1989. “An Introduction to Information Engineering : From Strategic Planning to Information Systems”. Sydney: Addison-Wesley.
 T. Berners-Lee, W. Hall, J. Hendler, N. Shadbolt and D. Weitzner, 2006, Creating a Science of the Web, Science, 311.
 J. Hendler, W. Hall, N. Shadbolt, T. Berners-Lee and D. Weitzner, Web Science: An interdisciplinary approach to understanding the World Wide Web, Communications of the ACM, July, 2008