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Salt Lake City R User Group Looks to Meld In-person and Online Activities

By January 12, 2022Blog

Salt Lake City R User Group noticed that their users were missing something during their online meetings. R Consortium talks to Julia Silge about how they planned on mixing online meetings with in-person activities to help with networking. She also talks about how funded projects helped her directly in her work as well as how to increase worldwide acceptance with more translated documentation for the global audience.

RC: What is the R community like in Salt Lake City?

JS: Salt Lake City hits above its weight population-wise based on where it’s located regionally in the Mountain West, without other big cities with tech hubs nearby. The R community here is a mix of academic folks (from the University of Utah, the medical school, and other academic institutions) and the burgeoning tech scene. We have a thriving academic scene, and the medical school is well respected and is connected to a lot of life science research. This area in Utah is called ”Silicon Slopes,” due to the beautiful skiing and the corridor of tech companies from Salt Lake City down to Provo. The R Community reflects all this; we have life science researchers and people who work at technology companies that are based in this area. 

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

JS: We had a meeting scheduled for March 2020, and we had to scramble to cancel it! Schools were moving online, and everyone was uncertain about what was happening. We took one month off since things were in flux. Then we moved to an online format later that spring, which we had never done before. We kept the same time slot (a weekday lunchtime Mountain Time) but shifted to online. We continued to use the same channels to get info about our meetings out. Thanks to the R Consortium, we have a meetup page. We also use GitHub to share talk materials after the fact, as well as a YouTube page for our videos. It was a big shift moving from in-person to online! Like a lot of R user groups, our meetings now had global reach.

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?  

JS: The other organizers and I discussed our meeting plans in the summer when things were turning around here in our community, with low cases, hospitals under control, and the vaccine rollout. We decided to keep lunchtime virtual talks and add in in-person networking events between the virtual talks. The idea was to alternate every other month or so. Networking and social connections are something that we miss with only virtual meetings. That was the plan, but then the Delta variant arrived in our community and we scrapped it. That is still our long-term goal for the future, a mixture of online talks and in-person events for social connections.

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? 

JS: One that comes to mind from this year was in May when we had a presentation on how to build a data science portfolio. Dr. Rachael Tatman gave a talk about how to make the transition from an academic or analyst role into data science with a portfolio of work. This talk is an example of a career or community talk, thinking about processes or decisions independent of the specific language we use.

The other category of talks we do are more specifically about using R, like using a certain package or how to write better R code. We ended 2021 with a talk about the pins package, an R package for publishing and sharing datasets, models, and other objects. It lets you collaborate with coworkers more fluently. Katie Masiello gave this talk, and it’s an example of a talk about a common problem and how we solve it with a tool in R.

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

JS: One thing that I see more and more people need to address in their workflows is moving from local development environments to a cloud environment. Our talk in October was about how to get started in AWS for machine learning and use SageMaker. (Since the October talk, there have been changes in how to use R on SageMaker.) Emily Robinson gave that talk and she used her own experience in her job to share what she learned. Using cloud resources is something that is a real trend, affecting more and more R users. There is a lot of interest in these topics, and we will continue to see talks reflect that.

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?

JS: Salt Lake City isn’t a huge data journalism hub, but one project that comes to mind is the work of data journalist Peter Aldhous at BuzzFeed looking at the pattern of election results and how they were affected by COVID. This project basically asked the question, “During the election, did the mishandling of COVID affect Trump’s chances?” It turns out it didn’t, and neither did unemployment. This was a difficult dataset because the first outbreaks were in New York City and other very blue cities, and then the worst of the pandemic moved to red states. The analysis shows that places that were hard hit by COVID were no more or less likely to vote for Trump. Peter used R for his analysis, and you can go and see his script on GitHub for how he did his modeling. 

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

JS: Our first event of 2022 is lightning talks done by our community members. This is a tradition for us; our first meeting of the year is always lightning talks, a nice variety of things from different people. Our members will give talks either showing off successes or failures, at a lot of different levels, and about both process as well as statistical methods. The variety is always nice.

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

JS: One that personally impacted me is the HTTP testing in R book. I work on some packages that make HTTP calls like the qualtRics package (to access Qualtrics surveys) and, honestly, the testing was a mess before I used this book. It made a huge difference in how my collaborators and I were able to build more reliable, better tested open source software for people to use. This testing book was my personal favorite funded project because it helped me move from being less effective to having a better grasp of good practices in this context.

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

JS: I’m going to highlight two. The first is distributed computing. I work on tooling for machine learning and modeling, and that work makes me very interested in better patterns for distributed computing structures for R. The other one is the R Pharma group. I gave a keynote at R Pharma in 2020, and although this is a community that I had not had much interaction with until then, I found that they are working on such interesting problems! They are interested in scaling up maturity in terms of software engineering and modeling practices. 

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:

JS: One that I think that would be, priority-wise, important and valuable would be the issue of translations in R. (That’s one of the funded groups this year.) When I look at the top-level projects, they focus on these top-level ways that we look at the R community and how we support people. How do we grow a thriving open source community better? High-level English competency being required to be able to access help messages, documentation, and more is rough. R is not unique in this challenge, but one of the things that drives the adoption of R is that you can use it to solve your everyday data analysis problems, no matter where you are. English isn’t the majority language in the world or even on the internet, so I think it is worthwhile to improve the translation situation, with better non-English support in general, and more documentation and blogs in multiple languages. 

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