Reflections on the ROpenSci Unconference

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I had an amazing time this week participating in the 2018 ROpenSci Unconference, the sixth annual ROpenSci hackathon bringing together people to advance the tools and community for scientific computing with R. It was so inspiring to be among such a talented and dedicated group of people — special kudos goes to the organizing committee for curating such a great crowd. (I heard there were over 200 hundred nominations from which the 65 or so attendees were selected.)

The idea behind the unconference is to spend two full days hacking on projects of interest to the community. Before the conference begins, the participants suggest projects as Github issues and begin discussions there. On the first day of the conference (after an icebreaker), the participants vote for projects they'd be interested in working on, and then form up into groups of 2-6 people or so to work on them. And then everyone gets to work! You can get a sense of the activity by looking at the #runconf18 hashtag on Twitter (and especially the photos).

I joined the “Tensorflow Probability for R” team, where we worked mainly with the greta package, which uses Tensorflow Probability to implement a Markov-Chain Monte-Carlo system to find solutions to complex statistical models. I hadn't used greta before, so I focused on trying out some simple examples to understand how greta works. In the process I learned that greta is a really powerful package: it solves many of the same problems as stan, but with a really elegant R interface that generalizes beyond Bayesian models. (Over the next couple of weeks I'll elaborate the examples for the greta package and write a more detailed blog post.)

At the end of the second day, everyone gets together to “report out” on their projects: a three minute presentation to review the progress from the hackathon. You can browse the list of projects here: follow the links to the Github repositories and check out the files for details on each project.

On a personal note, it was also a great joy that my team could sponsor the unconference and provide the venue for this year's event. The Microsoft Reactor in Seattle turned out to be a great place to hold a hackathon like this, with plenty of space for everyone to form into small teams and find a comfortable place to work. This kind of event is exactly why we are opening Reactor spaces around the world, as spaces for the community to meet, gather and work, and it was great to see that vision realized in such a great way this week. 

Thanks once again to all of the participants and especially the organizers (with a special shout-out to Stefanie Butland) for such a wonderful event. I can't wait for the next one!

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