Poo Kuan Hoong of the Malaysia R User Group (Also on Facebook) recently talked to the R-Consortium. He discussed the group’s rather smooth transition to regular online events. The group has also shifted its annual R Conference online, with speakers from around the globe.
Kuan Hoong works as a lead Data Scientist at BAT. He has a Ph.D. in Distributed Computing from the Nagoya Institute of Technology and has also previously worked in academia. He founded the Malaysia R User Group in 2015.
How did you get introduced to R?
Back in the day, I used to work as an academic at Multimedia University. At that time, there was a lot of interest in Data Science and Big Data at the university, and R was one of the popular languages. I founded the Malaysia R User Group to get the community to do some knowledge sharing. From there, I have been organizing a lot of knowledge-sharing events and talks.
I am very passionate about communities and I have also founded another community called the TensorFlow and Deep Learning User Group. So there are two communities I run and manage.
What is the R community like in Malaysia? Can you name a few industries using R in Malaysia?
Seven years ago, the Malaysian Government took the initiative to train people in big data analytics. They encouraged people to take a Coursera course and one of the courses offered by the Malaysian government was the Data Science course by John Hopkins.
The instructors used R programming language to teach that course. From that time, there was a lot of interest in R and a number of people picked R as a starting language for Data Science. Of course, now many people are also using Python. When I founded the R community, there was a lot of interest in R. R is actually a language that is easily picked by people with non-technical backgrounds, especially people from statistical and math backgrounds.
Industries that use R in Malaysia are mainly finance-related. A famous company that uses R in Malaysia is called MoneyLion. It is an American company and its entire data analytics team is based in Malaysia. The primary language used by the company is R. Besides that, there are a lot of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that use R for simple analytics. A lot of people are now adopting Python because it can be used in Machine learning, Deep Learning, and other AI stuff. I think we should use both languages as both have their own strengths and I encourage people to learn both.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
Before COVID, we used to have monthly events where I used to organize a physical meetup with the help of some enterprise like Microsoft or the Malaysian government in providing us with public space. Ever since COVID, all our events have shifted online. Normally we have one or two-hour workshops or talks. We have also started a new full-day event and we call it R confeRence. We are also hosting this conference online since COVID. I think shifting events online is not that bad. The upside of online events is that we can have international speakers for our events without having to arrange for them to fly in. So it saves a lot of logistic arrangements and costs on our end. It is also much easier to get people to attend online events. They can attend events from the ease of their homes and it is also much safer during the pandemic. It is also easier to organize events. Definitely, COVID has changed the way people connect. Nowadays people are more eager to go back to physical events as they want to connect and network.
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?
For our group, we use two main social media platforms: Facebook and Meetup. We also have a discord for our members to discuss any R-related problems or challenges they face. For online events, we mainly use Zoom. Most of our events are recorded, and we upload the recordings on our Facebook page. We also use Google Colab for our hands-on workshops, which allows participants to program without having to install R Studio. Many people aren’t aware that they can also use Google Colab for R. We are also exploring R Studio Cloud and trying to educate our members about these cloud-based platforms. We upload all the code from our events on GitHub. We don’t have a GitHub account for our group, so I just use my personal GitHub to share all the codes.
For our conference, UCT Malaysia partially sponsored the event, so we actually use WebEx. The Cisco WebEx also has a conference tool.
Our members are quite eager to go back to physical events. But there is a challenge to actually find a venue that is large enough to host a socially distant event. It is also difficult to convince people to attend events wearing a mask and taking proper safety precautions.
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?
My favorite would be our annual event. We get some really impressive speakers from big companies like Microsoft and even from the R Studio.
A more recent presentation I would like to mention is a hands-on workshop on tidyverse using Google Colab.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
A good trend I see is that the R Studio now supports Python. Many people have this misconception that R is an old language and R Studio is only for R. So I think R Studio supporting Python allows people to use both programming languages in a single platform. By combining the strength and weaknesses of these languages, they can do their work more efficiently.
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?
A lot of our members have used data to analyze the COVID trends. There is also a big project called the CovidNow to which our members contributed. It was an open-source project where people contribute analytics using R on the COVID data.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
I think an interesting project is the RECON COVID-19 challenge to make the R community improve its COVID-19 resources. I think it is a very relevant project during the pandemic and I find it interesting. That could be something interesting to us. Another interesting project is the Tidy spatial networks in R.
Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
I think there’s definitely interest in the R/Business. Because a lot of time people want to know how we can apply R programming language in business and if it’s actually relevant to us. They want to know how they can leverage R for some simple analytics and if that can bring some ROI for the company.
When is your next event? Please give details!
Our next event is the annual R Conference, scheduled for the 26th-27th of November. It is going to be a two-day event and we have just published the call for speakers. You can find more information on our website: www.r-conference.com
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