R Consortium talked to Zhenning (Jimmy) Xu of the Bakersfield Data Analytics and R Users Group about the challenges of engaging members of a small and budding R community. Zhenning emphasized the significance of collaborations and co-hosting events for smaller R communities. He also shared his vision of attracting more students to the R community through local events and competitions.
Zhenning (Jimmy) Xu
Zhenning received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Texas at El Paso, an MBA, and a Data Science Certificate from Johns Hopkins University. He is an Assistant Professor of marketing at the California State University, Bakersfield. His research interests include modeling and simulation, informatics, social network analysis, new product development, and marketing analytics.
What is the R community like in Bakersfield?
We just got started with the Bakersfield Data Analytics and R Users Group. When I was working in Maine, one of my friends started an R community. I was a founding member and helped him with booking locations for group meetups. When I moved to Bakersfield, I started this group here. But then we had the pandemic, so we had to move everything online. Since this is a smaller city, it is difficult to get students and professionals involved. We already have two co-organizers and we are all working hard to make this group a success.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
I would say there are both pros and cons to the pandemic. Because of COVID, we have moved everything online, so we don’t need to worry about logistics like booking a room or arranging food for people who attend the events. The events have become zero cost and the only cost involved in running the group is the Meetup membership that we have to pay from our own pocket. I hope we will get some support from the R Consortium in the future.
In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? For example, did you use GitHub, videoconferencing, online discussion groups more? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive of people that cannot attend physical events in the future?
I have been using different technologies to connect with the members of our group. Many users who attend our meetups do not have any background in R programming. I use R Studio Cloud, which is user-friendly and well-suited for beginners. GitHub, I feel, is for intermediate users who are familiar with the basics. I also use RPubs because it allows people to do free hosting and they can host a graph, a presentation, or a table. For video conferencing, we use Zoom and I plan to use Slack or Discord for online discussions in the future.
Bakersfield Data Analytics and R Users Group Meetup: ”How I built the Tidy Tuesday API?”, December 2, 2021
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?
We only had one external speaker. I give most of these talks myself. The problem is that we don’t have a lot of attendees at our meetups. Meetups for big cities like Boston have over 50 attendees. I attend their events myself. For most of our meetups, we get mostly 5, maybe up to 8 attendees. I think the last one which captured the interest of the audience was the Dashboard presentation I gave in 2021. It covered how to design a dashboard that could allow people to display information or graphs on one page. It was interesting for the attendees as they didn’t know they could use a programming language to do a very basic design.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
There are probably many things. I would say it would be how to engage more members of the community. Data Science is extremely popular in big cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But in smaller cities, it’s difficult to host events. So we plan on combining or co-hosting this meetup with different groups in different cities.
We are not too far from Fresno, for example. If we could get 2-3 cities to co-host a bigger event, it would be much more meaningful because we get to reach a much bigger audience. Otherwise, if we look at the number of members and the ones that actually take part, the numbers are low.
Collaborations are difficult, and I look forward to learning how to collaborate and co-host events. It would also be nice to host hybrid events because people really like them.
I am also really interested in involving the new generation of Data Analysts and Data Scientists. We have so many students taking Statistics or Data science classes, but some of them are not using R. I want to learn how we can convince students to probably make R their primary choice.
This past fall, I collaborated with a few friends to organize a hackathon. We found that many students are passionate about business analytics. However, they would need more opportunities to enhance their data storytelling skills. This spring, I worked as a judge for a local data visualization competition and our members had the option to use four different programming languages, including R. None of the teams used R, which was surprising because the host is a public university here in California. So maybe with R Consortium’s pending support, we can engage more students in the future.
Based on some online statistics, even though many of the students take statistical courses, over 95% of them never use R. Out of the 5% that use R, only 2-3% feel confident about using R. I really want to change that because companies are really passionate about hiring people who are proficient in R or Python. Once these students get a job, they will spend 3-6 months learning R. I have suggested we host regional events or competitions for students to be involved.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
Google Earth Engine with R is outstanding. I have been using R for two years but I have never heard about this website. So you need to promote it. Many people who use R don’t know about this website. The contents of this page are more for technical people and it would be nice to have content business people can understand.
Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
I liked the idea of R Certification. I also suggest having a working group for Students and R for marketing and supply chain professionals as well.
When is your next event? Please give details!
We do not have a definite plan at the moment. I am thinking of doing a dashboard design event in the coming weeks. I am also looking forward to collaborations with other meetup organizers because I think there are not enough collaborations and smaller cities can really benefit from collaborations.
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 four 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. We are now accepting applications!