The R Consortium recently caught up with Geraldine Klarenberg of the R Users Group Gainesville (also on Twitter) to talk about the group’s journey during the pandemic. Besides the regular events, the group also experimented with a new online event format. This casual format offered the members an opportunity to interact, network, and discuss different R related issues. Even though the group significantly increased its reach through online events, the organizers are working hard to continue to increase local participation in the group.
Geraldine works at the University of Florida as a lecturer in Quantitative Data Science. She has a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Biological Engineering from the University of Florida. She took over and revived the R Users Group Gainesville in early 2020, together with Ryan Mears and Laurence James-Woodley.
What is the R community like in Gainesville?
The R community in Gainesville is interesting because it is a small town and is very much dominated by the university. That’s also the tricky part because with our R user group we are trying to be a community group and not a university-focused group. Obviously, we are lucky that we get to use a lot of the resources that the university offers, like space and a Zoom account for hosting meetings. But there is definitely a challenge to get hold of people outside academia. So some R users work in consultancy or in local government and the rest of the R users are in academia. In academia, most of our users are working in environmental science and ecology.
Ryan, one of our organizers, is in the Department of Psychology. Laurence, our other co-organizer, worked at the College of Medicine but recently moved to the private sector and is working in health science. It is an interesting field as a lot of people still use SAS because the government wants them to use SAS. But more and more people are moving to R, so that’s up and coming and we are getting more R users in health sciences as well. The R community in Gainesville is pretty big, especially in academic circles. We have a dedicated listserv, and that is just a university-wide thing where people discuss issues and give each other solutions on R. We do struggle to get hold of people outside academia that use R.
In the industry, we are familiar with a couple of people working for a water management district nearby, which is a state organization: some people there use R while others don’t use it. We actually had one person from the district give a presentation to us. We have also been in touch with some people from a transportation department in Jacksonville where they use R. In environmental sciences, and wildlife organizations, both at the state level and NGOs, R is used a lot.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
So it’s been really tricky. We have been hosting our meetings online and we send out announcements on our listserv. This again is difficult because we only get to reach university members, as suppose to reaching a wider audience. We also announce meetings on Twitter. On one hand, online meetings have been interesting because we get a lot of people from all over. We also had some people from the University of Florida, who are doing fieldwork or are located somewhere else, join our meetings. So it’s nice that people can still connect to their local community. We’ve also had people from South Africa join our meetings, which was amazing. But with that, we have had more non-local people join our meetings than actual local people. So it’s been a mixed bag. On one hand, we have been making some great connections and talking to some really interesting people. But we couldn’t build that sense of local community we were aiming for. With having just resuscitated the group at the beginning of 2020, we are trying to figure out how to achieve that. We are thinking of mostly going back to in-person meetings and trying to encourage people to come to those.
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?
We have mainly been using Zoom for our online meetings. Our organizer, Ryan, also set up a GitHub repo for the group where we are trying to put all the information we are looking at during the meetings. Ryan also set up a space on RStudio Cloud for our group. I use RStudio Cloud myself also in my teaching and I think it’s great for sharing information with people who are not comfortable with GitHub. All they have to do is log in to RStudio Cloud and they can see the resources.
RStudio Cloud and GitHub have been great in terms of sharing information. We don’t think Zoom is going anywhere soon, so we do intend to keep using it.
In spring, instead of monthly meetings with presentations, we organized learning communities and coding collectives. So every month we have a time period between 3-5 pm on a Wednesday where one of the organizers would be physically available and also available on Zoom. Basically, just like a hangout with no scheduled activities. It was for people to just come to discuss a problem or to make connections. People could come and go during this period, as there was no fixed starting time. The coding collective was for the more experienced users where we would discuss more complicated issues. We targeted the learning communities toward new users. Users who are looking for resources, or dealing with some basic issues.
We initially set these up to get in-person meetings going again. But it turned out to be more of just an online gathering and we got to talk to a bunch of interesting people because it was just like an open forum. So that was really great in the sense that it was really low pressure and people could come whenever they wanted to. I liked the idea and the format, but in the end, it mostly turned out to be an online sort of gathering. It gets a little complicated because people expect you to facilitate the meeting, but that really wasn’t the idea. The idea was really more for the people to come and hang out.
I like this idea but we still have some tweaking to do on that. End of fall, we will probably do a bunch of these gatherings, but in-person as it would be great for building that sense of community.
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?
I would like to mention the format that we did in Spring. I found it very interesting, and we had some really great discussions. There was a discussion about portfolio prediction, which I found very interesting. I am in the process of trying to reach out to that person to invite them and give us a presentation.
Out of our official presentations, there was one about the ‘purrr’ package which I thought was great. It is one of those packages in which I tried dabbling a bit, but I couldn’t quite get it. So one of our members stepped up and did a presentation. I really enjoyed it and it was also very well attended.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
We have seen a lot of focus on data science and tidyverse packages over the past couple of years. We have had a bunch of presentations on these topics. I think we are getting into the realm of Artificial Intelligence(AI) a lot. For us, this is also a bit of a local issue as the university is getting into AI. They are building an AI institute and hiring lots of faculty in AI. I have also seen in my teaching that a lot of topics these days are about machine learning and AI. So I definitely expect us to have some presentations about either packages that help with machine learning, or maybe discussions about ethics in AI and machine learning.
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?
Personally, I feel that anyone who is trying to address societal issues through data journalism is doing a fantastic job. There was actually a great article in one of our local newspapers. It was about predictive policing and using questionable data to profile future offenders. It was terrible because they were profiling young kids who hadn’t done anything wrong.
Locally here in Florida, there were questions about the reliability of actual COVID numbers and what was reported. Rebekah Jones, who worked with the Florida Department of Health and ended up being a whistle-blower. She created a dashboard to make that data available, and it was pretty courageous of her.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
I am familiar with Google Earth Engine with R and R-Ladies. I really love the Google Earth Engine with R and I have heard some amazing things about it from one of my colleagues. I also plan to use it in the future.
Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
R IDEA is an active working group that I am very interested in. I am also a part of R-Ladies. Being a lecturer, trying to be inclusive and taking extra steps to keep accessibility into account, thinking about how to work with people with disabilities, are all personal interests of mine.
I also like the R Certification, because it’s really difficult to figure out people’s level of proficiency in R. I have been trying to get RStudio Certification for the last two or three years but last year they stopped doing the certification. So I have actually been looking around to figure out how I can get some certification to show that I am qualified to teach R.
When is your next event? Please give details!
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