R Consortium talks to Yanina Bellini Saibene, Riva Quiroga, and Natalia da Silva on starting up a conference in Latin America, the importance of networking, and some of the difficulties that some people have in different parts of the world.
RC: What is the R community like in LatinR?
NDS: We are growing fast. Under new initiatives, we have grown to over 45 R-Ladies chapters in Latin America. We are now having conferences in Latin America like LatinR, SER in Brazil, and more.
RQ: Many people thought they were all alone. LatinR and different conferences have shown that the groups are connected. We met online without meeting in person. This was possible because we had connections through R-Ladies. This allows those connections to become visible, both in communities and in a broad region. It is growing very fast. For many people, LatinR was their first contact with the R community, and from there they created RUG in their community or started projects.
NDS: The first LatinR was in 2018 in Buenos Aires in 2019 was in Chile. We hope to have 2020 in Montevideo but were unable to due to COVID. We ended up doing so virtually.
RC: How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
NDS: The pandemic situation has made it very difficult. LatinR is done with volunteering, and everyone had a lot of things going on. It was difficult to find time to organize a conference in this situation but we did it. In the end, we had a great conference and we got more people involved in the R community.
RQ: I think another problem has to do with sponsors. If you are organizing an in-person conference, sponsors get something. They have a space for giving away swag or give a talk, so they can feel the people are getting something for their money. And that is not as easy in a virtual event. It’s not as easy.
NDS: Not just not easy, it’s impossible to find one for these conferences. The only way that LatinR has survived is because of volunteering.
RQ: Because it’s virtual, we don’t want to charge people for attending the conference. So not too many institutions can give us help for organizing the conference.
YS: However, R Consortium has helped us. They let us use zoom for hosting the last three days of LatinR. It was a way to help where we didn’t have to pay for it out of our pocket.
RC: In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? For example, did you use GitHub, video conferencing, online discussion groups more? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future?
NDS: We used slack to organize the conference. We are also very active on Twitter. It’s basically for promotion and to figure out what is going on. We also have a web page that has a lot of information. We also use Github to share information from previous conferences as well as the presentations. We also have a youtube channel with different presentations. That is the way that we are organizing the materials, by combining all of these tools.
RQ: Slack is also a social space for the members to gather. It’s not only for the organizing team but also for the people who want to attend the conference as well as for people who have attended before. They can participate, ask questions, or how to prepare for R Conferences. Not just for LatinR, but other conferences like the R Studio Conference. It helps because if you want to give a talk at a conference you can go to the channel and talk to the committee and they can give you some feedback. It’s also a space that is used not just for organizing LatinR but also throughout the year. During the conference, we didn’t have a live stream, but we did have a live Q and A panel where we were able to ask questions.
RC: Can you tell us about one recent presentation or speaker that was especially interesting and what was the topic and why was it so interesting?
YS: The fact that we had the conference here and brought some rockstar names from the R community to this part of the world is another huge benefit for South America. We had Alison Presmanes Hill and Maëlle Salmon for the last conference. We had a lot more talks, about reproducibility, data science, and more. It’s all volunteer work and we are proud because it’s done by hand. The fact that these people come and see the community that comes here is amazing.
NDS: Having these people here shows that we can get anyone. Right now, with COVID it’s not quite the same. It’s a lot easier for them as well as us. But, if we can get them in person, the effect will be much bigger on the community. That would be something important for us and the community as well.
RQ: And these talks were useful given the context. Maëlle Salmon gave a talk on making your website using distill. Alison Hill gave a talk about how to learn new things and that was impactful for people who were alone in their home and didn’t have a community in real-life spaces. It was really important because it was something that impacted their lives. We have tried to invite people who will talk about things that are important for our region. For example, when Hadly Wickman we asked him to run a workshop on how to make an R package. The idea is that having more people in our region making R packages for the community. More people after the workshop sent their packages to CRAN and had their packages published. It was really interesting, because that workshop was in 2019, and last year we had people who presented packages that they produced because of the workshop. We are trying to think strategically, what people can do that will help the community and help others.
NDS: I think, overall, we had an impact on package production for the R community after this workshop.
YS: Also, the tutorials we did last year. In Buenos Aires and Chile we had tutorials. Last year we were able to have more because of the virtual part. We had the first two in Spanish and English. Last year we were able to do it in Portuguese. We were also able to have people certified as RStudio and Carpentries instructors teaching the tutorials which allow us to have nice, high-quality tutorials. This shows that people from our region can give quality training in R. We like to say that we are not just a conference, but rather a community. The conference is a way for us to see each other and show what we have been doing since the last time. What works and what doesn’t work as well as concerns in the community.
RC: What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
NDS: I think that R is changing and we have to pay a lot of attention. Right now, R Studio is involved in the R Community and is taking a more major role in the community. All these changes mean that we have to be kept up to date. We cannot go to sleep and think that the world has changed. We need to keep inviting people to our conference to keep our community up to date. In terms of the day, R Studio is a companion. People are also using the Tidyverse, and you have to keep learning this all the time. I think that there will be some confusion between R and R studio making sure that the programs work well together.
YS: We have a really big player in R Studio and they lead some of the changes because they make good tools. And we use that tools. But they are a company. We need to make sure that we have a strong community that can ensure that R Studio pays attention to the wants of the community. For instance, more people want better accessibility in R, so we need to make sure that R Studio works on this as well. We need to have a balance because they are using an open-source language.
NDS: Maybe we need to make sure that we are teaching in R and not just in R Studio. Because R came first and is open-sourced and no company runs it.
YS: I think that R Studio needs to be held accountable. One thing that I’m happy about is that the R Community has standards. For instance, the data camps, R-Ladies, Africa R, and others give people the space to discuss and feel safe doing so.
RQ: We have to be very careful about what we want to showcase at the conference. Right now, the pipe being in the base is the new thing. We are talking about do we want to use it, how will we do it. This is on the top of our list because there are no resources in Spanish or Portuguese to learn the pipe. Some people are blogging on it. We want to be up-to-date in R Base, Tidyverse, DataTable, etc. We want to show people a variety of ways to do something. So if you use R Base, we need to offer this. If you are involved in Tidyverse and Tidymodels, we need to offer that. If you are a Data Table user, we need to offer that as well. Offering those different ways to address the same problem. Even though there are major players that may have a way to do things simply, we have to be aware that some people may not be able to use them. This is why we need to offer a wide variety of approaches to the same problem.
RC: Do you know of any data journalism efforts by your members? If not, are there particular data journalism projects that you’ve seen in the last year that you feel had a positive impact on society?
RQ: People from Datasketch, a company from Bogota, Columbia, started making tools for data journalists for people to use without using R. They made a lot of shiny apps for people to use. If you have data you can upload the data, get a plot, and put it in your report. They are doing a lot. They ran a crowdsource a couple of years ago. They presented their shiny apps in 2019 and 2020. Mostly they are used by data journalists in Latin America. They are also organizing meetups.
YS: We also have some people from Politics who are building a package that analyzes speeches.
NDS: In this field, there are people from Argentina and Uruguay who are working on similar packages who are making packages to analyze this type of data.
RQ: We have both people doing data journalism as well as people making packages that would help people do their job.
RC: When is your next event? Please give details!
RQ: People can present in Spanish, Portuguese, or English. We are very open in terms of language. We are a trilingual conference so people can present in any of those languages.
RC: Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
YS: R-Ladies. That’s an easy question. For me, R-Ladies changed my life. It is amazing.
RQ: Because of R-Ladies we were able to meet each other and started organizing a conference.
NDS: We exist because of R-Ladies. Without R-Ladies, LatinR would not be and we would never have met.
YS: And a lot of people from the organizing team are from R-Ladies. And a lot of the other user groups have R-Ladies members in them.
RQ: It has been easier to invite people to the conference because of the R-Ladies network. It was very difficult to ask people about a conference that has never happened before. We asked Jenny Bryan, and she said yes I think because we asked through the R-Ladies channels.
RC: Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
NDS: Certification would be a good one to do. TO have a common certification program would be very important. Also, this would be good for academics as well as work. Maybe if they have some sort of certification is good.
RQ: Currently, the only way to show that you know anything about R is to take the R Studio certification and pay for that. There is no way that you can prove that you know anything. Maybe your Github would be a way to show that you know something.
NDS: Maybe you can show your Github account and show people your work and what you can do.
RQ: Having an R certification would be great!
RC: There are four projects that are R Consortium Top Level Projects. If you could add another project to this list for guaranteed funding for 3 years and a voting seat on the ISC, which project would you add?
NDS: Something about diversity. The language barrier is hard. We have different barriers other than language. You have support for a conference, but it’s not the same for us in Latin America. Each country has its problems. Maybe different areas need different types of support.
YS: Yes. Something as simple as getting reimbursed is different in Latin America. It’s really hard for us. It took me 12 months to get a check for $97 for my chapter of R-Ladies. And I had to pay taxes and pay to get it. This is something that people don’t realize. This is something that you don’t know if you don’t live here. Not all countries in Latin America has post mail for instance. Some of them have a central post office where you would have to travel to receive your post, pick it up and pay for it. While other countries in the region may have it. I have to pay a notary, go through customs, and more to get a shirt that someone sent me. These are the types of issues that we deal with. If you want to help people, you need to listen to us. You need to listen to people from this region in the places where decisions make. The effort has to make by the R Consortium to make these changes. I already have to work 3 or 4 times as much. I have to learn another language, be able to understand your language, and I have to try to speak it in a way that could be understood. We cannot afford to work on the process as well. A way to streamline support will help us immensely.
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