Shankar Vaidyaraman and Derrick Kearney sit down with R Consortium to talk about how the Indy UseR Group coped with the pandemic. They started moving towards online events early, how they work with a diverse group of coders and their interest in attracting non-coders to the language.
What is the R community like in Indianapolis?
DK: I’m outside of Indianapolis and I’m newer to the group than Shankar is. I would say that the R Community is growing because there is an increasing number of businesses setting up offices in Indianapolis. I remember before the pandemic we were at a meeting and two new people from an insurance company, and they said that they just got transferred to Indianapolis and wanted to learn R. It was super interesting to see that new businesses were moving in and their workers wanted to learn R. That’s how the R community was growing in Indianapolis.
There are a lot of Pharmaceutical companies in the area as well. We have asked them to share their experience with R and talk about different R packages. We have tried to cater to all of Indiana. We might even be the only R Group in the state! We are currently also reaching out to more users for in-person and virtual events.
SV: I agree with Derrick. A lot of people in the Indianapolis area are learning R for their work. The group has been around since 2015 or 2016. It’s gone through its ups and downs. Given the size of Indianapolis, we have had quite a few R users.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
SV: We didn’t have a lot of members attend the meetings before the pandemic. We had several meetings talking about what we could do about it. We started doing it online before the pandemic. We knew that we had some people coming from Bloomington (UI) or Lafayette (Purdue). We started having Zoom calls so that people from the greater Indiana area could attend.
DK: Before the pandemic, I didn’t appreciate it as much as now the Zoom meetup. We had a speaker attend from Purdue, pre-pandemic, give her talk on Zoom. The speaker wasn’t going to be able to attend and present beforehand. Having that available has been a help. Over time, Zoom fatigue has started taking over. When I first started attending, I thought this would work well because I would have better time management. But over the last half year fatigue has set in. Maybe I need the time to drive over to the place to calm down.
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, or 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?
DK: Meetup and Zoom are the main two technologies. Shankar has been keeping a GitHub repository where you upload presentations and resources. That has been helpful, allowing those who couldn’t make the initial event to have access to the information and videos. We also have a YouTube channel where we try to post our videos. That has helped with engaging the community who couldn’t attend the event.
SV: I think that we will try to do it since it’s a decent opportunity for those outside of Indianapolis to join in.
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?
DK: One that was interesting to me was our last presentation about the Arrow project. I had heard about the project a lot, but I wasn’t following in-depth about what it was. I was able to hear about the project, what it was, what it wasn’t going to cover, and how people could help out with the project. Ian Cook gave that presentation.
SV: I like the one from RStudio Rich Iannone about tables. I liked it because I wanted to do nice tables in R. I always wanted to do that but never was able to. Seeing the talk let me go through the process and make them. The package he used was GT.
DK: I liked that presentation because he had a lot of examples. Visual help because you want to see what the table looks like. Oh, you want to change it to this other thing? Here’s how you change the code.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
SV: Primarily because the users that we have are from different backgrounds (environmental, data science, agriculture) it’s hard to see the trend that would cover all these topics. Also, in the last year, I haven’t kept up with R developments (Shiny and R in Production). Maybe R has graduated into a bigger thing with more people or companies (like RStudio). People are now thinking about it more as a main program than as an exploratory program.
I know that R is trying to move into TensorFlow problems, and R has a package in tensor. I am interested in whether or not R will start moving towards more machine learning, especially when you can call Python from R now.
DK: I’m usually trying to communicate something to people, I need to show people something and I need it to look professional. I found doing that in R was easy. Even taking notes or writing up a letter of recommendation. I thought to myself “maybe there is an R markdown template for this.” There was and I was able to create a good workflow for writing my letter.
I have noticed a bigger focus on data science, and it seems to be starting to take shape, rather than it being a buzzword that encompasses many things. For data science, people would have to be familiar with moving data, collecting data, and storing it. There are people that can specialize in things like building models, and others. This can potentially make people happier in their data science journey. It is also noticeable in the Meetup groups, everyone comes in with the R tools they know and use, this creates something that can be teachable and promotes collaboration.
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?
DK: When it comes to data journalism the most common thing that comes to mind is Andrew Ba Tran, from the Washington Post, at the RStudio Global conference. It was memorable in that I remember it, but right now the topic escapes me. I was able to talk to him afterward.SV: There was one at the RStudio conference on how they use R for the ACLU.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
DK: I don’t have a favorite because I’m not involved or knowledgeable about them in general. Those that look interesting are the Rust Extender because I like computer languages. I think it’s interesting to see the connections between Rust and R. The R for engineering applications is also interesting. When people think about R they think about statistics or modeling. When they think about engineering they don’t think about R, they usually think about MATLAB as the primary language. I think it’s interesting to have this push to use R. Also setting up the R girls network looked interesting.
SV: That is a good point about the R for engineering because of my background in chemical engineering. I feel that MATLAB, then Python, are the primary languages. I tend to use R for more things now and still have a place there.
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?
The current four projects are:
SV: For people who are programmers who want to try R it’s easy. For those who have never done programming, it’s harder. Can we set up something that is more deliberate to engage those who have an interest in R but do not have the programming background? How do we get them onboard? They have the analytical background but not the coding part. Going from excel to R for instance. Some are so good at excel and can do a lot. But some things in R would take a lot of hoop-jumping in excel. Monte Carlo simulations for instance. I have no idea how to do this, but I think that this would be a good idea.
DK: When I get a good idea I tend to direct them toward the RCDI group.
When is your next event? Please give details!
DK: Next event will be on August 16th. We are trying to get in contact with a makerspace to host in-person events, and topics. We are looking forward to getting back into the swing of things!
More information here: https://www.meetup.com/indy-user-group/events/287115976/
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