Dr. Heather Turner of the Warwick R User Group (also on Twitter) recently talked to the R Consortium about the group’s struggle to stay active amid the pandemic. With the pandemic and changes in the organizing team, the group took a hiatus for a few years. They made a comeback at the end of 2021 and are currently alternating between in-person and online events. She also shared the group’s plans to host hybrid events in the future.
Heather has over 15 years of experience in the development of statistical code and software, gained through positions in academia, industry, and as a freelance consultant. She is currently a Research Software Engineering Fellow at the University of Warwick.
How did you get introduced to R? How do you use R in your work?
I started learning R during my Ph.D. as I needed it for my studies and research. Then during my postdoc, I worked to create an R package, and that’s when I started to learn more about software development. At that stage, I moved a bit more into statistical programming rather than statistics. And that’s what I have been doing since in academia, industry, and as a freelancer.
About a year and a half ago, I started a 5-year fellowship working on Sustainability and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in the R project. The aim is to foster a broader and more diverse community of contributors to R, particularly the base packages maintained by the R Core Team. So while I do use R in my work, I am involved in a lot of community engagement activities encouraging other people to use R and to contribute back to the project. Anyone interested in contributing should visit contributor.r-project.org to find out how to get involved.
What is the R community like in the UK? Can you name a few industries using R in the UK?
Our R User Group is based at the University of Warwick, so most of our group members are researchers and Ph.D. students at the university. During the pandemic, we were able to increase the reach of our group outside of the university through online events. We are currently trying to alternate between in-person and online meetings. Most of the people attending our meetings outside of the university come through a connection to alumni working in the industry. So our group has a strong link to the university.
The R community in the UK is very vibrant, with several active R User groups. R is widely used in universities and in industry. I recently attended an NHS-R Conference organized by the NHS R community. The use of R in the NHS and other public sector organizations is rapidly growing.
In industry, R is being used across sectors. It is being used in Pharma and also in journalism. The government here in the UK and the Office of National Statistics are also using R. Many data scientists working for a variety of businesses use R.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members? What techniques (Github, zoom, other) have you used to connect and collaborate with members? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future?
The pandemic coincided with our main group organizer moving away. So our group wasn’t very active for a couple of years. We restarted our group with online meetings at the end of 2021. Initially, we hosted some joint meetings with other R user groups, like the Barcelona R User Group and the Manchester “R-thritis” group at the University of Manchester. Once we got things going and gathered a community again, we started hosting some in-person events. Over this past year, people have been gradually getting back to in-person events. We would love to host in-person events more frequently, but our members also like the flexibility of online events.
We have been using Microsoft Teams for our online meetings because we also use that at the university. We have a GitHub repository for our group. The organizing team uses GitHub to set up to-do lists for organizing meetings.
We don’t upload recordings of our meetups on YouTube as speakers are often not very comfortable with that. We have a website and we share slides from the speakers there. For now, we are hosting either in-person or online meetings, but we would love to host hybrid meetings in the future. We had some changes in the organizing team and we are still picking things up. But that’s definitely something we are working on.
Can you tell us about one recent presentation or speaker that was especially interesting? What was the topic and why was it so interesting?
Recently, we had a couple of connected presentations related to reproducibility. It sort of spun out of a discussion that we had in our in-person meeting. One of our members had this issue with reproducibility and asked the group about different tools that are available. We thought that was quite a big topic and we could have a couple of sessions for that. The first session looked at package management tools like automagic or renv and the next session was about containers, specifically docker containers.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
There are many significant projects that the R Consortium has funded and I’m grateful for the support they give to the R project and the R community. Some of the projects that have been particularly useful to me as a community organizer are the satRdays, Forwards workshops for women and girls, R Community Explorer, and the R-Ladies organizational guidebook. But my current favorite is the R Girls School Network – I was happy to meet the founder, Dr. Razia Ghani, at NHS-R Community Conference 2022 in Birmingham recently and some of us from the Warwick R User Group hope to visit her school in the future. I think it is great to have materials on R that are accessible to children in high school and to have a network that particularly encourages girls to find joy in using R.
Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
My favorite active working group is the R Repositories working group. They are working to make the CRAN check process and policies more transparent to package developers, to avoid some of the frustrations that can come with packages not passing CRAN checks.
When is your next event? Please give details!
Our next event is an online meetup, where Ellen Zapata-Webborn from the UCL Energy Institute will talk about “Using Predictive Modelling to Study the Impact of COVID-19 on Energy Consumption.”
How do I Join?
R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups around the world organize, share information and support each other. 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 meetup.com accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!