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Information Systems Engineering

September 26th, 2008

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,” [1] 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.

[1] Finkelstein, Clive. 1989. “An Introduction to Information Engineering : From Strategic Planning to Information Systems”. Sydney: Addison-Wesley.
[2] T. Berners-Lee, W. Hall, J. Hendler, N. Shadbolt and D. Weitzner, 2006, Creating a Science of the Web, Science, 311.
[3] 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

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Announcing WebSci ’09 — a conference in Web Science

September 25th, 2008

For more information, please see http://www.websci09.org

WebSci’09: Society On-Line

Athens, Greece
18th–20th March, 2009

Scenery of Athens

Web Science focuses on understanding, designing and developing the technologies and applications that make up the World Wide Web. But the WWW does not exist without the participation of people and organizations. Now that a significant proportion of everyday life is spent on-line in many countries, it makes sense for the first Web Science conference organised by the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) and the Foundation of the Hellenic World (FHW) to be dedicated to the presentation of research into society on the Web. How do people and organisations behave on-line – what motivates them to shop, date, make friends, participate in political life or manage their health or tax on-line? Which Web-based designs will they trust? To which on-line agents will they delegate? How can the dark side of the Web – such as cybercrime, pornography and terrorist networks – be both understood and held in check without compromising the experience of others? What are the effects of varying characteristics of Web-based technologies – such as security, privacy, network structure, the linking of data – on on-line behaviour, both criminal and non-criminal? And how can the design of the Web of the future ensure that a system on which – as Tim Berners-Lee put it – democracy and commerce depends remain ‘stable and pro-human’?

Such a challenge requires understanding of both human behaviour and technological design. So the science – including the social science – of the Web is a field that requires the attention of both computer scientists and social scientists. The aim of this conference is to bring these two groups together across the disciplinary divide for perhaps the first time, exploring the development of the Web across different areas of everyday life and technological development. We welcome papers from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, including computer science, physics, economics, political science, sociology, geography, management, health. Papers which incorporate more than one discipline will be particularly welcomed. We have identified the following areas of on-line society and Web development for particular attention:

  • E-commerce
  • Government and Political Life
  • Social Relationships
  • Cybercrime and/or the Prevention Thereof
  • Health
  • Culture On-Line

In addition, we are interested in papers that concern the cross-cutting infrastructure issues on which these areas depend including, but not limited to:

  • Linked Data and the Semantic Web
  • Trust and Reputation
  • Security and Privacy
  • Networking (Social and Technical)

Submissions should take the form of extended abstracts, no more than two pages in length, which will be peer-reviewed by the Conference Committee of Computer Scientists and Social Scientists. Please suggest which of the ‘society’ or ‘technology’ themes apply best to your work. The submission deadline is 31st October 2008 (details to follow). Successful applicants will be asked to produce a short paper of 5,000 words to be presented at the conference in a plenary session, panel or poster. These papers will automatically be considered for publication as full papers by a number of journals whose editors have agreed to participate.

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