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Spectacularly Prescient – satRday South Africa Covered COVID Data Before Pandemic Hit

By May 7, 2021April 21st, 2022Blog, Events

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. The wealth of knowledge in the community and the drive to learn and improve is inspiring. With the wide disruption of events due to COVID-19 this year, we are interested in how groups are getting on despite the disruption in normal communication. The pandemic has focused our interest to look at how we communicate both at conferences as well as communicating with people outside of the main events while navigating the new challenges that the pandemic has created.

We talked with Andrew Collier, Data Scientist, Fathom Data, and satRday conference organizer, to find out how the R community in South Africa is faring. 

RC: How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

Well, we have run our conference for four years in succession. Actually, in 2020 we had the conference on the day that they announced the first official COVID case in South Africa. It was an in-person conference, but basically it was immediately before lockdown. That’s completely derailed our plans to do anything this year. I don’t really think I have the appetite for organizing an online conference. If I’m going to organize a conference I want to see people in the flesh.

That’s on the conference side, but as far as the meetups are concerned they are still soldiering on. Actually, I gave a talk for R-Ladies Cape Town towards the end of last year and they are still holding fairly regular meetings. It doesn’t seem to have a massive impact on them. If anything, I suspect that they are finding the logistics of organizing the meetings easier because they don’t have to organize a venue or eats or that kind of thing.

RC: How did the technology to connect change over the last year?

It varies. I know that we did the talks to R-Ladies Cape Town on Google Meet. But, I’ve also seen them using Zoom, and I’ve also seen them using Microsoft Teams as well. All kinds of platforms.

RC: 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? 

If I could pick out a talk I really enjoyed, and was spectacularly prescient at the time, it would be a talk at satRday last year where Robert Bennetto told us about COVID and what was going to happen before it happened!. So he had done a bunch of modeling, and everyone else was thinking “Hum, what’s the COVID thing all about,” and he stood up on stage and told us and within days what we had been told at the conference was our new reality. People didn’t see the relevance at the time, and they didn’t realize the enormity of what was about to happen.

RC: 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?

I’m not aware of anyone who has been to the conference who is a data journalist. I have a couple of contacts in Cape Town who are data journalists but they don’t use R as their main platform. The other thing that I have seen a lot of journalists do is that they go so far in R but then they take it across to another tool … to tweak the presentation. Like take it across into inkscape, and then actually build the visualization in inkscape, which to my mind kinda defeats the object of having a reproducible system if component of it has to be done by hand.

RC: When is your next event? Please give details!

We don’t have any immediate plans. I don’t think we are doing it this year. February, March, April worked out to be a good time relative to school terms and public holidays and things. It was a time where we could find a weekend when most people didn’t have any commitments. And the rest of the year that tended to be tricky. If it was to happen again it would be the same time next year.

RC: On social distancing on possible future events

I would prefer not to do that, but I think that realistically we would have to. Unfortunately it does make social interactions more difficult.

RC: Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite?  Why is it your favorite?

The R-Ladies group is my favorite, and I am a little bit awed by how successful that group is. I have tried to run meetups myself, and it’s hard work. And it’s not particularly rewarding because at least where I live people will sign up for a meeting, and say I’m coming and on paper you’ll have 50 people coming to your meeting, and you’ll arrive having catered and only a few people arrive. I’m not exaggerating, that’s a realistic scenario. So, that’s a little bit disheartening. But the R-Ladies are well attended so, I don’t know what the secret sauce is, but it does work.

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 4 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. We are now accepting applications!