Why are R users so damn Stingy?!

April 26, 2014

(This article was first published on Econometrics by Simulation, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)


Looking at rapporter’s recent blog post on “R activity Around the World“, I am shocked by how few users actually monetarily support the R Foundation.  Looking at the US for instance there are only 27 donars representing a little more than 0.1% of those registered on R users groups (of which there is nearly 27,000 members) which is a small estimate of the user base which is hard to estimate.

To get a better idea of the user base according to the same report it states that over 8 million packages have been downloads from the US.  Imaging that each active user may download on average 50 packages this gives a US user base of no less than 160,000 active users as an extreme lower bound.  This notation of large usage is complemented by Robert A. Muenchen’s long running article tracking usage statistics of statistical software.

Yet we know that R users represent some of the highest earning professional skills we know that if users were not using R they would likely end up paying for proprietary software which costs thousands of dollars in order to do the same tasks.  And still the number of actual donors is abysmal.

So Why Do R Users not Contribute to the Foundation?

1. Nobody knows what the foundation does!  

The R foundation lists three things under its purpose:

  • Provide support for the R project and other innovations in statistical computing. We believe that R has become a mature and valuable tool and we would like to ensure its continued development and the development of future innovations in software for statistical and computational research.
  • Provide a reference point for individuals, instititutions or commercial enterprises that want to support or interact with the R development community.
  • Hold and administer the copyright of R software and documentation.

The first two points (1. provide general support for R and 2. provide public face for R) are critical points for which R has continued to be handicapped in gaining popularity I believe largely because the foundation has been underfunded and inactive.  I believe that being a board member on the R-Foundation should be seen with similar prestige as other massive open source projects such as Firefox, Apache, and GNOME.

Yet when I called the foundation to talk with someone, I cannot even be sure I got the write number (despite it being listed on the foundation’s webpage).  It is clear to me that the foundation has taken an extreme back position in promoting the public image of R, leaving it almost entirely up to the user base, other foundations, and corporations to promote the language.

This has worked fine, yet the roles outlined above are important roles which should not be left by the wayside.

2. It is pain in the %$# to contribute to the foundation!  

In the process of writing this post I  attempted to call the phone number on the R-Project Foundation website.  The person I got was not happy to talk to me and well did not seem interested in talking to me at all.  When I looked at contributing to the foundation I found a PDF form that was supposed to be printed off and mailed with check or credit card information to the foundation!  What decade are we in?

I am surprised even 27 people in the US gave to the foundation.  Besides the R-Project website interface clearly have not undergone any major renovations in the last ten years.  Who uses frames anymore?  Why would anybody fill out a pdf document to mail in when the standard for professional websites is to provide a secure interface for making payments online?

3. Projects funds usually cover software budgets

And since R is free nobody factors in the software cost to their budget.  Professionals never want to pay for something out of their own pocket which could be paid for out of their project budget.  However, R is so clearly free that it is impossible for a project to allocate a donation to the continued support of R even though the program administrators might be very willing to provide such funds.

I therefore propose an optional annual “Maintenance Fee” that will provide businesses and institutions with a (expense account) justification for funding R.  Such a service could come with priority support on R mailing lists or forums with maybe three tears (Gold- $1000, Silver- $500, and Bronze $100, maybe).  Users could post their status when asking questions and other users who respect the donors willingness to pay to support the R-Project will be more generous with their time when answering such questions.  Such a system would allow for projects grants and funds to channel some small portion of their resources to help support the continued existence of R.

4. Users do not like paying to a single service

This is something that find I particularly difficult.  My logic goes, why give to R when there are so many people here in need in Mozambique?  But how do I decide which organization to give to say Free The Girls an organization which provide an alternative source of income for prostitutes or Massana an organization which provides food and education to street kids in Mozambique (I personally know board members of both these organizations and they are excellent people who serve faithfully).  Then I must wonder how much to give and in what increments etc.  Long and short of it, I give much less than I intend to and when I do give it is usually for a friend raising money for this thing or that thing.

I am therefore suggesting that if you are like me then please consider giving money through flattr.  It is an organization which acts as a clearinghouse of donations.  You give a fixed amount to flattr each month and flattr redistributes 90% of those funds to the organizations that you have chosen.  The other 10% it keeps for itself.  It seems to me that this is an excellent way for users of R to fund R as well as other initiatives which seem worthy.

Since I was unable to contact the R-Foundation I have set up a flattr account in there name which people can donate to using the following button:

RFoundation Flattr this

As soon as I am contacted by a verified Foundation Member, I will transfer over complete control of the flattr account.  (Yes it is strange that there is no verification step to ensure that creators are actually the ones who set up the flattr accounts)

But Why Give to the R-Foundation?

I have frequently wondered why it is that despite a super abundance of resources R maintains its reputation as a language which has a steep learning curve.  I personally attribute this reputation primarily to the horrible user interface that R new users routinely encounter when going to R-Project.org.  It is frankly embarrassing to be an R user when the platform is so bad at representing itself.

Likewise the foundation clearly needs to have some resources to fund staff members.  This staff could focus on developing resources in order to provide basic support to media, business, universities, students, etc.  The R-Foundation compares its existence to the Apache Foundation and the GNOME Foundation yet despite the tremendous success of R, it has no official public image to speak of if I can gauge from the webpage or the failed 5 minute phone conversation I had with the official number.  I believe, all users of R will benefit by the language representing itself more professionally.

With additional funding the foundation could also provide additional support to making R user conferences appear more professional as well support the development of the R-Journal and other R other publications.

However, the primary goal of the foundation which could be furthered through the support of a wider donor base is the continued development of resources to facilitate the use of R by existing users as well as continuing to develop new tools for new R users.

Thank for reading! A good rule might be to think about how much you would be willing to pay to use R if it were proprietary then give say 5% of that.

If you are a frequent reader of my blog please consider flattring me! In the last year I have made 3 dollars and 62 cents from people flattring my blog :)

Econometrics by Simulation Flattr this

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