Salt Lake City R User Group’s Success Story: Blending In-Person and Online Events

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Last year, Julia Silge, co-organizer of the Salt Lake City R User Group discussed the group’s plans to meld in-person and online activities with the R Consortium. This year, Andrew Redd,  founder of the group, provided an update on the group’s recent and upcoming events. The group has successfully implemented its plan, with online presentations coupled with in-person networking events. Andrew also discussed his work with the Veterans Affairs and trending topics being discussed at the group’s events. 

Andrew is a Biostatistician and works as an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He also works as a Research WOC at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Andrew is also an R expert for VINCI.

Please share about your background and involvement with the RUGS group.

I was initially introduced to the R programming language during my time in graduate school at Texas A&M University. I was a member of the statistics department there and was working on my PhD. Even though Texas A&M has a close affiliation with Stata, R was the language of choice for that year. I quickly took to the language, as I already had a background in programming in C. I had also done extensive work in Mathematica during my undergraduate studies and other languages, such as Visual Basic and various other programming languages. I found R to be a pleasant language to use and am a firm supporter of open source software. As a result, I quickly became proficient in the language. I have since made a career out of working with R and have published a few early packages. One thing that brought me early recognition was my NppToR package, which is still available online. I abandoned this package when RStudio became sufficiently developed to fully utilize the capabilities that I relied on with Notepad++ as my primary editor.

I arrived at the University of Utah in 2010 and founded the Utah R Users Group shortly thereafter. The group was originally called the University of Utah and Salt Lake City R Users Group as it was centered around the university and its users. We later expanded beyond the university and now have members from all over the world. Our meetings where we present material are now fully online. We supplement these meetings with social gatherings that are not centered on presentations. Instead, we meet at local venues such as bars or ice cream shops and simply talk about R. These gatherings allow us to meet new people, see what others are doing with R, and network in a more casual setting.

Would you like to tell us about some recent and upcoming events from your group? 

The next meetup we have is in January. January is always a great meetup, as we have a tradition of doing lightning talks as our first meeting of the year. Our lightning talk series aims to highlight our local members. We prioritize our local members and give them five minutes to present an interesting project they have completed, such as a cool analysis or a new package. These presentations are low-stress and brief.

Our February event will focus on package development and the latest developments from R Studio and consortium regarding package development and maintenance. As for recent events, we had an event titled “Slide Crafting with Quarto” in November and another meetup titled “Fairness and Machine Learning” in December. We strive to provide a wide range of topics for all levels of our programming. 

Any techniques you recommend using for planning for or during the event?   

Meetup has been extremely beneficial. It did not exist when we founded the group, or at least I was not aware of it when we first organized the R users’ group. Thanks to the R Consortium grant, which pays for the Meetup page, it has proven to be a very useful tool. We are currently in a hybrid format, with all our presentations being held online. We live stream the recordings to YouTube and on Zoom, which is where we usually host them. It then simulcasts to YouTube, where it is saved. This allows anyone who wishes to do so to view our previous meetings.

We have achieved significant success, and many of our presentations have garnered a considerable number of views. While these views are not viral by YouTube standards, they are a significant number for our community. 

However, I must admit that we have always operated our organization in a manner that differs somewhat from other user groups. We have a unique culture here in Utah that makes it easier for us to meet during the day, which I know is not typical of other user groups, which typically meet in the evening. However, we have found a schedule that works for us and have stuck with it. I believe that the most important thing for anyone trying to organize a user group is to find a schedule that works and stick with it.

Please share about a project you are currently working on or have worked on in the past using the R language?

I would like to discuss my work with the Veterans Affairs. The Veterans Health Administration has the VA Informatics Computing Infrastructure (VINCI), a secure remote desktop environment for conducting research. With this infrastructure, we have access to all the VA records. Once we have approval and access, we can use tools such as R, SAS, or Stata, along with other various tools to perform all the data analysis that we need. This is a very useful resource that I have been working with for about 10 years. I am the R expert for VINCI, so I receive a lot of questions regarding R.

Most of the questions asked of us are related to connecting R with databases. In particular, I rely heavily on dbplyr, DBI, and odbc, since the VA is SQL Server based. My compliments to the team behind the DBI and odbc packages, as they have saved me from many difficult situations.

What trends do you currently see in R language and your industry? Any trends you see developing in the near future?

Everything is trending towards tidyverse and tidy principles. This has been a trend for several years now, with everything trying to be more uniform in the way it is done. This is done by treating data as data, which I really appreciate. It makes it easier to program and extend.

Our group has also had a lot of topics that are not just about R, but also about statistical analysis‌. For example, I will point out the meeting on Fairness in machine learning, which is a very important topic. If you have biases in your data going into a machine learning model, those biases can easily be propagated through the model. Sensitivity to this is something that we should all be aware of. So, we are not only talking about the hows of programming and how to work with R, but also a lot of best practices for programming. Just because something works does not mean it is necessarily the best way to do it. At least in our group, we have been very mindful of these things. 

How do I Join?

R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups organize, share information, and support each other worldwide. 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 accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute.

The post Salt Lake City R User Group’s Success Story: Blending In-Person and Online Events appeared first on R Consortium.

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