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Birmingham R talks about the difficulties of socializing in an online space

By November 15, 2021Blog

One of the difficult parts of running a group in an online space is maintaining social interactions that you would normally foster with in-person meetups. R Consortium talks to Adnan Fiaz about how he is attempting to create those interactions in the online meetups. 

Adnan is Senior Data Scientist at National Grid in Birmingham, England. He is an analytics professional with a passion for mathematics and complex challenges. And outside of work and R, has a keen interest in playing football, cinema and general aviation.

RC: What is the R community like in Birmingham?

AF: I took over about 3 years ago. Before that, there were several meetings, but they slowed down quite a bit. I came in with quite a few new ideas. We started with 1 or 2 meetings every quarter. We had a good rhythm until 2020. It was getting harder to get speakers, but I was able to find them. We were able to have about 20 people attend the meetings and that was quite good for Birmingham. It was a mix of academics from the local university, NHS staff from the area, and scattered R Users that used it in their businesses. We also had new users and people who had been using it for years. It was very diverse.

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

AF: We were struggling in the beginning because we didn’t know what to do. It depends on how you deal with it as an organizer and a community builder. I was leaning on face-to-face contact and others to help me out. Online, it was harder to engage with people and to ask for speakers from the local community. We didn’t have a meetup for 4 or 5 months. In the autumn we had a meetup. Then we didn’t have anything until the winter. At the beginning of this year, we decided to do meetings online and jumped on the bandwagon of the Global R community. We advertised their meetings on the Birmingham R page to give the community something to watch. Then we organized a meetup of our own in between their events. There is a lot less interaction with the members this way. People tend to be less interactive in online meetings and spaces. Since you must put a lot of effort into forcing socialization in these online spaces. I am looking forward to being able to go back in person.

RC: In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members?  For example, did you use GitHub, video conferencing, online discussion groups more?  Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future?  

AF:  Slack, Twitter, and Zoom are the technologies that we use mainly. We also have a GitHub page that we use. These allow a lot of people to attend our online meetings.

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? 

AF: We had several from the local meetup. We had a presentation/workshop from Birmingham University about mixed effect models by Bodo Winter. He explained mixed effect models from the basics of how they work as well as the more complex models that can be done. Once people had an understanding, they were able to ask more pointed questions. I was surprised because there was more engagement in the second part, mostly because people understood the concepts. There were a lot of questions, and people seemed to take it in a good way.

RC: What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?

AF: We will probably see more people branching into how to build different statistical models. In the last year, we saw packages brought into the tidymodels framework and building upon caret and splitting it, and building specific parts. In short, having better support for model building.

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?

AF: I think one that got a lot of attention was the covid visualization by the Financial Times by John Murdoch. They were very informative. He also spent a lot of time discussing how he created them and engaging with everyone on Twitter.

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

AF: November 18th. We will be meeting in person.

RC: Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium,  do you have a favorite project?  Why is it your favorite?

AF: The most useful one to me is the R Ladies Project. I have used the materials from that project to start the meetup again as well as tips to increase engagement.

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

AF: I think the most interesting one is the R Certification. I remember when it was first proposed that it would be useful for meetups to give them a framework. We started with small segments before the meetup to start learning R in a beginner’s course. Just 10 minutes before the meetup to warm up. The R Certification would help guide that.

RC: There are four projects that are R Consortium Top Level Projects. If you could add another project to this list for guaranteed funding for 3 years and a voting seat on the ISC, which project would you add? 

The current four projects are:

AF: I saw some work from Heather Turner on the future of R developers. That would be interesting to get more focus on because it would be good if we had more diversity in the core team of R Development.

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 meetup.com accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute.