rOpenSci’s Leadership in #rstats Culture

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At their closing keynote at the 2020 RStudio Conference, Hilary Parker and Roger Peng mentioned that they hatched the idea for their excellent Not So Standard Deviations podcast following their reunion at the 2015 rOpenSci unconf, (“runconf15”). That statement went straight to my heart because it pin-pointed how I had been feeling throughout the week of RStudio Conference that I had been unable to name. At rstudio::conf, I was surrounded by so many of the incredible people I had met at that very same runconf15. These folks are visionaries and leaders, founding and leading global efforts in open source software and inclusive culture, and the fact that they were all together at a small event convened by rOpenSci holds great significance. I am so honored to know this community, and to consider them allies and friends. The RStudio Conference (“rstudio::conf”), a conference with 2400 people, felt cozy with their presence and with the visible efforts they have led to make R and beyond a welcoming, innovative space. In a follow-up to an earlier blog summary of rstudio::conf(2020), here I want to reflect on how important runconf15 was, and how truly unique and gamechanging rOpenSci is.

The 2020 RStudio Conference felt monumentous to me personally because it marked five years of me being in the #rstats community (which I define broadly to be the deliberate, inclusive, and welcoming culture around R and that visibly exists on the Twitter #rstats hashtag) . #rstats has not only upgraded my analytical practices, but it has also changed the trajectory of my career and life: it has upgraded my skillset and also my mindset and expectations of what is possible for scientific research and beyond. I mentioned this in my 2019 useR! keynote, but I intentionally did not really talk about it. What I could not say in that keynote was describe really at all how important rOpenSci — the program, leadership, and community — is to me because I can’t talk about it without my voice wavering with emotion. But here, written, I will try.

My entryway to #rstats all started with a single person who welcomed me: Karthik Ram.

Karthik is a data scientist, an ecologist, and a world-changer. He not only co-founded, built up, and leads rOpenSci, but also leads efforts at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and the US Research Software Sustainability Institute, among a million other things. He is an incredibly warm, thoughtful person, and he first said hello to me when he was co-teaching the Open Science for Synthesis course at NCEAS where I am based (but was not attending). I met him in the hallway one day and he asked me about my work and told me a bit about rOpenSci.

rOpenSci brings software developers and users together to innovate on creating new coding tools and promoting open science. It does this by deliberately creating a friendly, positive environment where folks with different backgrounds and expertise feel welcome and comfortable to learn, share ideas and innovate together. rOpenSci exists primarily online, through its extensive staff- and community-developed and ever-growing ecosystem of R packages, Community Calls, discussion forum, Twitter and Slack. It also catalyzes relationships and strengthens community through in-person “unconf” events, bringing community members physically together to collaborate on specific projects of their choice.

The 2015 rOpenSci unconf (“runconf15”) was transformative for someone like me, so new to coding. Beforehand, I was pretty scarred by my experience coding, and really thought that software was a static, untouchable, and unalterable thing, sort of like a refrigerator that did Its Purpose and Too Bad if it doesn’t work quite right or limits your imagination of could be possible. Honestly, my closest inkling that I could interact with software or software developers was through Clippy.

But at runconf15, I learned not only that software developers were real people, they were kind people. They were kind people who would take time to talk to a new user/marine ecologist like me, and be interested in my use cases, questions, needs, and learning process. My colleague Jamie and I were able to talk with RStudio’s Joe Cheng about our pitfalls and limitations of working with raster map data in R. And then we were blown away as Joe began coding a package to make rasters faster right before our eyes, in dialogue with us as we sat together.

Having these kind people (note: “kind people” not “kind of people”) all together ready to innovate does not happen by accident. It takes deliberate intent and attention to bringing us together and setting the tone in a comfortable space to interact. And this was the vision of rOpenSci. This runconf15 was the first time I heard a Code of Conduct. And it was the first time I had experienced a large setting without hierarchy, and felt like I belonged and could contribute in a way that was welcomed.

I’ve been thinking back to rOpenSci’s runconf15 event five years ago. My interests, time investment, and career focus on kinder science was definitely catalyzed by runconf15, and then reinforced by other’s efforts from this very same event. Those runconf15 participants who were already #rstats influencers…were they catalyzed as well? Hilary Parker and Roger Peng said that their NSSD podcast idea came out of rOpenSci’s event. How about Tracy Teal, who became executive director of The Carpentries, Gabriela de Queiroz who had created and then turned RLadies into a global movement, Arfon Smith, who went on to lead the Journal of Open Source Software, and RStudio, who increased their team and customer base by an order of magnitude in five years and who launched rstudio::conf in 2017?

rOpenSci made concerted efforts to continue building and nurturing this community after runconf15. This means leveraging the power of the internet, where conversations ignited at runconf15 was continued with enthusiasm and innovation.

But rOpenSci is all about welcoming more and more people into the rOpenSci and #rstats community, as is evident in part from runconf16, runconf17, and runconf18, and the 28.2K Twitter followers (as of February 2020). rOpenSci has created a friendly watershed of innovation, with a growing network of diverse people and skillsets contributing in myriad ways, like streams joining a ever-stronger flowing river.

And what I am trying to do with Openscapes is to connect additional tributaries to this rOpenSci watershed. I think that the most important thing I do here with Openscapes is to pass forward what I’ve learned from rOpenSci leadership and community, and welcome additional scientists to join. When we talk about the awesomeness of R communities in our mentor sessions, it’s not only to encourage them to become a part of them, but also to extend its ethos and kick-start kinder science around them.

Thank you rOpenSci leadership and the greater community for being so welcoming and supportive of me and everyone like me.

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