R Communities in South Africa

By June 23, 2020Blog

R Consortium interview with Dr. Heather Turner, Chair of Forwards, the R Foundation taskforce for underrepresented groups in the R Community

In January, R Consortium posted about a crowd-funding campaign for Building the R Community in Southern Africa. In February, they successfully raised £2,700 with 44 supporters in 28 days. Fantastic!

We wanted to get a mid-year update and also more details on R communities in Southern Africa so we spoke with Dr. Heather Turner, chair of Forwards, a R Foundation taskforce for underrepresented groups. Dr. Turner is a Honorary Research Fellow of the Statistics Department at the University of Warwick, UK. She brings nearly 20 years of experience with R. Recently, Dr. Turner raised money to fund several workshops and talks in order to develop the R community in South Africa. 

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What were some of the interesting ways R is being used in Southern Africa?

R is being used in academia, government organisations, non-profits and businesses. It is perhaps not as common as SPSS or Python, but an enthusiastic community is growing. I was able to discover where R was being used through the people I met and the companies that hosted or supported some of the events. However, the Johannesburg satRday was my main opportunity to see how R was being used. Several of the talks had an African focus, such as Anelda van der Walt’s talk on the afrimapr project making it easier to map data by administrative regions:

Kirsty Lee Garcon’s talk on mapping African genomic data with the sf package:

And Astrid Radermacher’s talk on unravelling the mysteries of resurrection plants (specifically, a native African one) using various R packages:

Among the general R talks, I particularly enjoyed Diana Pholo’s talk “From Pythonista to Rtist”, which gave practical advice:

Drikus du Toit’s talk on SHAP: Interpreting ML Models with IML (), which looked at modelling whether a person would default on a loan.

And Roberto Bennetto’s talk on exploring the Corona outbreak with R, which, back in March 7, was one the first looks I’d had at data from the pandemic.

How has R literacy helped to empower women in areas like Johannesburg or Kampala where satRday events have been hosted?

Learning R is one way that women can unlock the power of data science. This can be directly applied to issues of gender equality as Caroline Akoth demonstrated through her talk on the work of Women in GIS, Kenya, at satRday Johannesburg.

Alternatively, it can give women the opportunity to lead the way to more open, reproducible practices, as satRday Kampala keynote Shelmith Kariuki recently demonstrated by extracting the Kenya Population and Housing Census results from PDF files and publishing them as tidy datasets in her rKenyaCensus package: https://github.com/Shelmith-Kariuki/rKenyaCensus

In general, expertise in R is a powerful skill that can help women to progress in their careers and make a difference in the world.

The satRday events play an important role in inspiring women to pursue data science and to take on responsibilities in the R community. After the satRday in Abidjan, three women joined the board of the Abidjan R Users group and they have already been active in planning and leading R training. The first satRdays in Africa were held in Cape Town and the organizing team made a concerted effort to have a strong representation of women in the program, inviting only women keynotes and proactively encouraging women to submit abstracts. This commitment to the inclusion of women has continued with the subsequent South African satRdays and has been very effective. It can be motivating for women in the audience to see women on stage; after the first Cape Town satRday, Theoni Photopoulou was inspired to start an R-Ladies group. She was joined by Megan Beckett and they co-founded R-Ladies Cape Town. Since then, there has been a symbiotic relationship between R-Ladies and satRdays in South Africa, where one helps to promote the other and both help to strengthen women’s R literacy and social networks.

The community and social network are just as important as R literacy. R-Ladies groups such as those in Cape Town and Johannesburg provide a particularly supportive space for women and gender minorities to learn R. But satRdays and regular R User Groups also help to connect women to R users outside their university or workplace. For some women, these connections have lead directly to new jobs requiring (more) R expertise. More generally, women can tap into their network to help them navigate interviews, negotiate competitive salaries and handle both technical and inter-personal issues that come up in their work.

As women learn more about R and are supported by the community, they become confident in themselves, impacting the wider community. For example, Astrid Radermacher, a co-organizer of R-Ladies Cape Town, has started to run free R classes at her institution and it is mostly women that attend. Shakirah Nakalungi, a co-organizer of the satRday in Kampala, is an ambassador for Zindi, a Kaggle-like platform focused on solving Africa’s most pressing problems. R-Ladies Johannesburg has partnered with ‘Women in Big Data’, ‘Coding Mamas’, ‘WiMLDS’ and other groups, widening their impact. In this way, women empowered by learning R pay it forward within the R community and beyond.

Your data (https://forwards.github.io/data/) shows that the average age for packet authors was approximately 39 years old. Has it been your experience that young adults find R to be daunting?

I don’t think that young adults find R to be daunting any more than older adults. The data you refer to is quite old now (from 2010); back then it was still unusual for R to be taught at undergraduate level. So most people would learn R during their postgraduate studies or later in life and it would take a few years to get to the stage where they might write a package, hence most package authors were over 25. I would expect the distribution to have shifted a little to younger ages these days, however the average age would still be relatively old, as thankfully writing an R package is not a fatal event and us older maintainers live on!

What has been the most gratifying part of putting on events like R-Ladies or satRday? The most frustrating?

The most gratifying part is people enjoying the event. It’s great when you get positive feedback or people post something online saying how they learnt something that they’re keen to try out or how they felt welcomed and supported by the folks at the event. The frustrating part is people wanting a lot more from you when you’ve volunteered to do a particular thing. On the one hand, it’s often something I would want to do and would be good at. On the other, the small asks add up and can become too much, so something has to give. This is challenging to me as a community organizer, it’s easiest to say “X is good at that, let’s ask them”, but we need to be respectful of people’s time and keep looking to bring new people in to share the work.

Do you see R being used more in Africa over the coming 3-5 years? 

Yes I do. My impression is that R is not widely taught in universities across Africa, but initiatives like eR-Biostat are helping to change that. Often students will self-learn R, or learn through a one-off workshop perhaps by a visiting lecturer or run by the Carpentries. R users that are trying to encourage others to use or learn R can face a couple of frustrating attitudes. One is that R is only used in universities and is not useful in other sectors. Another is that R is something to be feared because increased automation may make people’s jobs redundant. Such attitudes are why I think it is critical to build the community around R, with R user groups, satRdays and online networks, so that people can see the variety of ways R is used and see that increasing data science literacy can lead to more interesting, skilled work. The R community is growing in Africa and I think this in turn will encourage wider adoption of R in the next few years.