R-Ladies Philly – Building our Online Community During the Pandemic

By May 27, 2021Blog, Events

Authored by: the R-Ladies Philly organizing team

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, R-Ladies Philly has shifted from local in-person meetups to virtual events. Hundreds of local, national, and even international R enthusiasts joined us for monthly virtual meetups and social activities! We organized more than 10 R workshops and co-hosted a datathon with local partners. We even launched a YouTube channel to make our workshop recordings widely available. Based on feedback from our members, this has been very successful despite the difficulties associated with COVID-19. In this post, we share a bit more information on our events and what has worked for our group.


Starting from April 2020, we organized 11 R workshops, ranging from basic data cleaning and visualization to more advanced R usage like R package development and popular topics such as machine learning. One of our goals is to celebrate gender diversity in the R community by highlighting different speakers. We also aim to engage R users from all different levels and encourage speakers to share their learning experiences. We made all workshop content and notes captured during Q&A available to the public through our Youtube channel and event recaps on the R-Ladies Philly blog. See below for links to our workshop events:

  1. Tidyverse (April 2020) – Kelsey Keith
  2. A/B Testing in R (May 2020) – Elea McDonnell Feit
  3. Introduction to R lightning talks (June 2020)
    • 6 R Packages to Add to Your Workflow – Jinyi Kuang
    • How to install R and RStudio for the first time – Tess Cherlin
  4. How to Test and Roll (July 2020) – Elea McDonnell Feit and Ron Berman
  5. Hands on Machine Learning (August 2020) – Jaclyn Taroni
  6. Decision Trees & Random Forests (September 2020) – Trang Le and Karla Fettich
  7. Flexdashboard and debugging with shinyobjects (October 2020) – Jake Riley
  8. Your first R package in 1 hour (November 2020) – Shannon Pileggi
  9. Data Visualization (December 2020) – Trang Le
  10. Introduction to R dashboard development with Shiny Dashboard (January 2021) – Anastasia Lucas
  11. From Learn-R to Teach-R (February 2021) – Ama Nyame-Mensah, Cass Wilkinson Saldaña and Silvia Canelón
A screenshot from our panel event that is posted on YouTube. Here we used slido.com to facilitate a panel session with R educators. The top upvoted questions are: “How can I teach my coworkers R?”, “Learning what to google when something went wrong was such a big factor in my own learning curve. Any advice for helping beginners learn what to search?” and “How do you come up with good active learning opportunities, or examples?”


We asked Datathon 2021 participants how they would describe the experience in one word or phrase. This word cloud visualizes their responses. Teamwork, learning, and cats feature prominently.

Every year, R-Ladies Philly organizes a datathon that aims to bring R enthusiasts and community organizations together to create insights through data and give participants exposure to new techniques, real-world data, and a diverse group of local data science professionals. These datathons consist of in-person kickoff and conclusion events, and 6 weeks of online collaboration in between. 

The pandemic caught us in the middle of our 2020 datathon, which was a collaborative effort with other local data groups to help address the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, so the conclusion meetup had to change format from in-person to online (see a recording here). 

In 2021, we had to switch to a fully online format, where the kickoff meetup was held via Zoom and participants organized themselves into groups through breakout rooms. Our 2021 datathon explored judicial patterns in Philadelphia courts, including bail, sentencing, and the concept of ‘judge harshness’. Participants worked together using Zoom, Slack, GitHub, and a shared Google doc for Q&A that also allowed the partner organization to answer questions asynchronously. Our conclusion meetup (view the recording here) showcases some of the highlights of this year’s datathon findings and the work that participants have put into analyzing a large and complex real-world dataset. 

Insights from a virtual year

Overall, we are looking forward to returning to our pre-pandemic format when it is safe to do so. Being forced to adapt our approach has had some benefits. We were able to reach a broader audience that was not previously able to travel to our events. We were also able to try new event formats and new technology. For example, we held two virtual social events where we experimented with different formats to get to know each other remotely. We also used tools like breakout rooms in zoom for our datathon and online tools like sli.do for polls and Q&A sessions for our panel and datathon events. We also tried to keep our events as interactive as possible with lively chats and the usage of Google docs to track and answer all participant questions during workshop events. These practices will be useful for all future workshops, whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid.

We are looking forward to continuing to build our online presence with more YouTube and blog posts, even when we are able to meet again face to face. If you are interested in joining us, please look for upcoming events on our meetup page. We are also seeking volunteers to plan and lead hands-on workshops for the remainder of 2021. Please learn more by visiting our website.

Some photos of our in-person meetups before the pandemic. We look forward to eating pizza together again one day.