The R-Consortium talked to Novica Nakov of R Skopje about the challenges of managing an R User Group during the pandemic. Novica told us about the budding R community in North Macedonia and how shifting events online has not been useful for this tightly knit community. However, Novica hopes things will return to normal once they resume events in a physical space.
Novica is a long term free software enthusiast and has been working with the free software community in Macedonia since 2001. Originally from a Social Sciences background, Novica initially contributed to the community mainly on policy issues, legal issues and localization. He later learned R-programming during his postgraduate studies in the UK.
Before forming the R Skopje User Group, Novica was also involved in establishing a hacker space Kika in Skopje 10 years ago. This hacker space hosted Linux help forum days, general knowledge sharing events and one day conferences.
What is the R community like in North Macedonia?
North Macedonia is a small country, so it is lagging in certain areas as compared to the US. Before 2018-2019, there were very few Data Scientist or Data Analyst jobs available in the country. However, there has been a general shift in public interest ever since. The R community in Macedonia is still in its early stages.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
I started the R User Group in 2018, hoping to provide a knowledge-sharing space for people like myself who do not have a technical background but need to use a programming language for data analysis. We formed the User Group within the hacker space, as there was an established infrastructure available.
Before the pandemic, we were having regular meetings on Tuesdays. These meetings were like hands-on workshops where people helped each other with problems they faced while working with R. We also had presentations where members shared their projects with the group. Government ordered a lockdown in early 2020, and we had to shut down the hacker space. We also had to cancel the lease on the space.
As it was a tight-knit community which thrived on one-to-one interactions, lockdown significantly reduced the quality of communication between the members.
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?
After the lockdown, we had 2-3 online events that were R-specific in which different speakers presented. Besides that, we also moved all our regular events to Google Meet, but it didn’t work really well. Since it was a small community, people spent most of the time catching up with each other and had very little interest in the actual slides, etc.
We are talking about a really small country and a really small pool of people interested in data science. Just to give you an idea about the scale, there is a group called Data Science Macedonia, where the main organizer is a Macedonian company ScaleFocus. They used to host events at a local university which attracted around 150 people. Companies such as Slice used to present in these events and discussed possibilities of employment, which was interesting for people looking to start working in the data field.
Our group, on the contrary, consists of people who are simply curious to learn new programming languages, etc. for personal use. I think online meetings are not really good for such a group, because they don’t allow for person-to-person interactions for solving a particular problem.
We attempted having online workshops, but it didn’t work out as it required a lot of troubleshooting, which is really difficult unless you have physical access to the participant’s system. I think online meetings are not great for workshops.
We started talking about reopening the space, as many people are missing the ability to get together. I don’t know if this will happen, but if it does, we will resume our events in the physical space. But I am not very optimistic about the online events.
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?
I think the last presentation we had was by a Financial Data Analyst, Ljupcho Naumov, and the topic was optimizing your portfolio using R. This event turned out to be a huge success and around 300 people joined the online event.
I am not sure if people joined the event to learn R or to get free financial advice about getting rich. Another reason for the success of the event was that it coincided with the central bank lifting the ban on personal accounts for trading in foreign brokerage companies.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
Given the situation, I don’t think R or development in any language would be as important as dealing with the health crisis.
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?
One media organization in Macedonia sometimes runs data driven stories, and I think they are connected by the European network called Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Macedonia has joined this open data initiative recently and one non-government organization is running a project on creating datasets from local governments governance organizations.
There’s also this project I was working on where we were trying to create local datasets from data from local governments. I guess this is something that can potentially be used in journalism.
When is your next event? Please give details!
We don’t have a specific event in mind at the moment. However, as a lot of members in our events are women, I am hoping to connect them to R Ladies. R Ladies Belgrade is very active, and maybe we can have some sort of collaboration with them. I am also really interested in opening an R Ladies branch as we have this pleasant history of women getting involved in our space.