R Consortium recently talked to Till Straube of the Campus UseR Group, Frankfurt, Germany, about the group’s aim to provide an informal knowledge-sharing environment for Campus R users. The unique format of the group was difficult to achieve in online events, and they look forward to returning to in-person events. He explained that the group constantly strives to be inclusive of all R users coming from all backgrounds and levels of expertise.
Till is a geographer and works at the Goethe University of Frankfurt in the Department of human geography. His research interests center on critical data science, digital infrastructures, and security technologies.
What is the R community like in Germany?
Before moving to Frankfurt, I was working in Bangkok, and we had very active user groups for software engineers. These were casual gatherings, where we got together and talked about different technologies. I was looking for similar groups in Frankfurt to connect on the same level. I found one user group and tried reaching out to them, but it had been inactive, and I didn’t get a response from them right away. So I decided to start a new user group for R in Frankfurt and started looking for allies. I found Janine Buchholz, who also worked on campus here, and we started this group together.
After we had announced our first meeting, we heard from the existing user group. A company had been organizing it, and they had a very different approach. At first, we considered combining the two groups, but our different focuses became apparent. So we decided it would be fitting to have a university-focused group.
We started the Campus useR Group Frankfurt as a platform for everyone who works with R on campus to connect in a more casual way than the classic format of expert talks. We experimented a lot with different formats that were all designed to get people in the room talking about R in a way that was comfortable for everyone. In terms of topics, we found our niche in questions related to research, publishing, and teaching, but we also discussed working with R more generally from the beginning.
There are also Data Science meetups here where they talk about R as well, but they tend to be rather business focused. My impression is that few academic users of R are committed enough to those conversations outside of the university. Also, the R-Ladies Frankfurt was founded around the same time. Some members of our group are also part of that group, so there has been a lively exchange with that group.
Campus UseR Group Logo
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
Before COVID, we had regular meetings in person once a month. It was around March 2020 when we could no longer meet on campus. We switched to online meetings pretty much right away.
At that time, it seems many people were looking for online meetings on the Meetup platform. Interestingly, there were suddenly people joining our meetups from all over the world, sometimes just listening in.
We held on to our casual and diverse formats, but the casual, information-sharing experience was missing. Even though we were successful in creating an online setting that remained easy-going and fun, it was a lot more work. It was just not the same as many of our formats from our in-person meetups didn’t work well for online meetups. The spirit of casually sharing ideas or coding together on a laptop couldn’t translate so well online.
At the end of last year, our co-founder Janine moved away for job reasons, and I was very busy finishing my Ph.D. and preparing the defense. So we haven’t had meetings for 4-5 months. But we are planning to return with in-person events at the university because that’s possible now. Probably with the new semester, we will start again.
In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? For example, did you use GitHub, videoconferencing, online discussion groups more? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that cannot attend physical events in the future?
We have been using Zoom for video conferencing, and it worked fine, more or less. We were also sharing data for doing exercises, but we had been doing that before the pandemic, so this was not a recent development for us. We don’t have a dedicated GitHub repository. Our preparation is much more casual, and the focus is on the meetings. We have a “no homework” policy so that anyone can join at the spur of the moment.
As far as the idea of being more inclusive by offering online formats is concerned, we are focused on creating unique learning experiences that are only possible in person. The formats we had in mind for our group didn’t translate very well online. However, we do put in efforts to stay more inclusive in terms of language, for example. All our events are in English even if all the people preparing them are native German speakers. In addition, we always emphasize that our meetings are for R users of all backgrounds and at levels of expertise. So, I would rather focus on keeping our group inclusive in those ways than looking at online formats as a quick fix.
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?
We have had some amazing talks from members of our group. As I said, we try to avoid the classic format of having an expert talk in presentation style because we have so much of that in the university already. We usually choose a topic and share our experiences. And no matter the topic, it usually turns out that one or in the group has had valuable experiences that everyone can learn from.
One meeting I remember fondly was called “Teach me Shiny,” where I was introduced as the “non-expert” while the audience was the experts. I had heard of Shiny at the time, but I hadn’t used it. I would be in the lead sharing my screen, but the audience had to tell me what to do. In the end, I put together a simple Shiny app, and I think that was a very interesting format and a learning experience for everybody.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
Publishing tools and workflows involving R have a huge potential in university. I am not sure if it will affect our organization, but I really hope more people continue to look into it. I do all the scripts for my lectures in Bookdown because it is so easy to share information and collaborate. R does not get enough recognition as a publishing platform. I don’t see many people using it for teaching materials, for example, using R Markdown for making slides, writing papers, etc. So that’s really where I save a lot of time in my text editor (not having to fidget with software). I can’t predict the future, but I hope more people at university realize this potential and start playing around with R in this way.
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?
I should be more in touch with what’s happening in data journalism, but unfortunately, I am not up to date at the moment. I know there are really interesting data journalism efforts that are connected to far-right violence in Germany, which I think is a really important topic. It’s something that lends itself to giving it more visibility through maps and data journalism.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
As a geographer, I am really interested in the spatial features of R. So I was really pleased to see Tidy Spatial networks’ efforts. I have also used d3 before, and d3po is also one of the funded projects. Overall, I find projects with a focus on spatial data very interesting. Also, it’s great to see that R Ladies are getting funded support.
When is your next event? Please give details!
We are planning to return with an in-person meeting at the university. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until the start of the new semester in October. I plan to celebrate this relaunch by announcing it beforehand and reaching out to everyone. With this event, we want to revive the format of casual meetups with everybody sharing ideas and doing some coding hands-on. I feel that it really fills an important gap in the R landscape
How do I Join?
R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups around the world organize, share information and support each other. We have given grants over the past four years, encompassing over 65,000 members in 35 countries. We would like to include you! Cash grants and meetup.com accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!
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