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Oslo UseR! Group’s Diverse and Inclusive Environment Has Fostered a Resilient R Community

By December 13, 2021Blog

R Consortium talked to Raoul Wolf of the Oslo UseR! Group about the wide adoption of R in Norway, both in academia and industry. He explained how the pandemic initially hindered activities of the group, but they bounced back. The group took the opportunity to collaborate with other R communities and invite high profile international speakers for virtual events.

Raoul currently works as a Senior Advisor and Digital Developer within Sustainable Geosolutions at Norwegian Geotechnical Institute. Hailing from Germany, Raoul was first introduced to R when he began his PhD studies in Norway eight years ago. 

When he’s not coding in R, Raoul enjoys the cultural life in Oslo and is really fond of the fantastic museums and the vibrant culinary scene. 

What is the R community like in Norway?

I cannot talk on behalf of the entire R community in Norway, as we have several hubs of the R community. Oslo, as the capital of Norway, has the largest R community. But the R communities in other cities, e.g. Bergen, Trondheim or Tromsø, are also doing great things. 

What I like about the R community is how very welcoming it is. This is true not only for Oslo, but all over Norway. It is a diverse community in terms of cultural backgrounds, professional backgrounds and identities. My professional background is from academia, and we have a vast base in academia in Oslo, but also people from consultancies and the industrial sectors. 

We are lucky to be in the capital city here and can collaborate with the different communities that are already here and using R.

I need to mention that while I am the main organizer of our meetup group in Oslo, I have two wonderful co-organizers, Bethan Cropp and Henrik Galligani Ræder. At a certain point, both were regulars at our events and wanted to take a more proactive role in the community building here, and that’s a blessing. Between the three of us, we recruit speakers and organize events.

In Oslo, we not only have the UseR! Oslo meetup group, but also a great R Ladies meetup group. Across Norway,  other R Ladies groups are really active as well, and we have had great contact with R Ladies Oslo and co-organized events. So we are really happy with this constellation in Oslo. 

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

Massively. It was an enormous challenge initially, but also presented new opportunities. Before the pandemic, we only had physical meetups. When the pandemic hit Europe in March 2020, we had events planned through the summer with confirmed speakers. We postponed our March event, hoping things would get back to normal in April or May. Luckily, Oslo useR!’s previous organizer Dmytro Perepolkin was able to present virtually on short notice, and subsequently we were able to transfer some of our planned physical events to virtual events.

At the end of 2020, we noticed that more and more meetups across Europe have turned virtual. We connected with a few of those meetup groups, but also reached out to international speakers who we thought would be interesting for our Oslo UseR! group.

In January 2021 we had our first “international” speaker, and it was a success event. We followed this pattern to mix up our local talent with some high-profile international speakers, and this has worked well for us. We have seen an increase in the number of people joining the meetup group and in the number of interactions. Along the way, we also figured out practicalities like moderating a chat box.

There was a steep learning curve, but the numbers went up considerably, and now we have over 1,900 members. It is very encouraging having 200+ people participating in our meetups. We started recording our meetups and put them on YouTube. Everyone can go back and watch the videos if they missed out on an event.

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?  

We used the six months to figure out how we can continue with our meetups. We are lucky enough to have a colleague that is affiliated with the University of Oslo and they, very early on, had a professional Zoom license. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a bottleneck to get people on a video conference like that, and we were lucky enough to have early access to such a platform. We quickly started reaching out to our local talent pool we were in contact with from before.

We are currently in contact with a tech community building where we plan to host our events once we go back to physical events. Additionally, we are exploring the possibility of hybrid events. Ideally we will have physical meetups with livestreams and recordings. This emphasizes our wish to stay in contact with as many people as possible, and to be more inclusive. 

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?  

There were a lot of interesting presentations this year. The one that impressed me the most was the one we had in January, which was our first international meetup.

The speaker was Paul Bürkner from Germany, and he talked about Bayesian Multilevel Modeling and presented his brms package. I have used the package before, and it is always a treat to have developers present their own packages. We got a lot of feedback and interaction in the chat box, and had an excellent discussion throughout.

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

That’s an interesting question! There are several parallel trends in R depending on your point of view. There is the ongoing trend of tidyverse that continues to develop into more ecosystem, like tidymodels. We get a lot of requests at the meetup for integrating R in a larger environment with databases, APIs and visualization tools. Besides the stereotypical use of R in academia, there is an increasing demand for using R in production and business use cases. Data journalism is also becoming more important, and there are some newspaper houses in Norway that are using R.

I don’t know if it qualifies as “trend”, but the positive spirit of dissemination and inclusion in R and the R community is really making a difference. We all witnessed how important it was during the pandemic, and it will be of equal importance moving forward.  

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?

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health has presented some of its COVID research and predictions using R. The modeling and visualizations were done in R. It was one of the biggest impacts locally to see R prominently displayed in the public. 

When is your next event? Please give details!

Our next meetup, “Wrapping Packages in R with {devtools} and Friends”, is scheduled for 16th of December. It will be our annual holiday season meetup, which traditionally is a bit more light-hearted. The first half will be about “wrapping packages,” demonstrating how to make packages in R. Afterwards, we want to have an open discussion with our community about how they have experienced the last year.

For next year, we are really excited about the planned events until spring. There are several interesting talks in the pipeline, and we will announce them as soon as we have finalized all details.  

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

Two projects, actually. One is the project financing the webchem package. I have used the package in my academic work, and have directly benefited from having it available.

The other is the consolidation of R Ladies groups. It is both unique and beautiful, and demonstrates the idea of R being a welcoming and inclusive environment.

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

The R Community Diversity and Inclusion working group undoubtedly one of them. Even though I don’t have a direct connection, I think the R Validation Hub for the pharmaceutical industry is important. To get into regulatory territory is a huge step for any programming language, and I am happy to see that R is moving in this direction.