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R-Ladies Cotonou Talks About Running an R users Group in Benin, West Africa

By June 6, 2022Blog

A lot of what we use in the day to day life in the developed world may not always be available to those in the developing world. R Consortium talks to Nadejda Sero about running an R-Ladies group in Benin, West Africa, that is both dominated by men as well as lacks basic infrastructure such as reliable internet to hold online meetings.

What is the R community like in Cotonou?

I’m not sure if I could call it an “official R community” like what exists in other cities and countries. I would rather say clusters of R users are spread in the country, mainly in the southern part, where prominent universities and institutions are found. Most users I know evolve in academia – students, faculty, and researchers. They are scattered into small groups and dominated mainly by men. In my country, minorities, especially women, are barely represented in STEM. So, R- Ladies is a great platform that helps us come together, network, discuss our gender issues and learn. We have been including small talks related to women in Science and the professional world. This is how R- Ladies Cotonou has been functioning. I have reached out to some of my colleagues about creating an R Users Group. As I am already involved with R-Ladies (organizer and member of the Global Team), I cannot lead another group. But I am available to help and share my experience with the R community. 

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

Globally, COVID-19 has prevented us from having new meetings till we started adapting and exploring online options – an ongoing process here ☺. After a long break, we restarted our meetups with the help of the R-Ladies mentoring program. Then, Covid happened, and everything kind of shut down. I was fully aware of the issues we would run into. How to make it work? I observed how the other chapters adapted and discussed with other organizers in Slack. However, our realities were different. I initially felt pretty shy and guilty about suggesting online meetings to the frequent participants of our meetups. To investigate attendance at a probable online meetup, how comfortable it could be, and needs, I shared a google form before planning the first online event. As one may expect in this part of the world, the leading cause reported by interviewees was the terrible and expensive internet. I think it’s the type of internet that will teach you patience and how to be humble. Although R-Ladies has a Zoom account, the difficult access to good internet and, to some extent, “working” devices (computer, smartphones, etc.) have been significant limitations to the group expansion. The slight positive feedback encouraged me to push things forward. And the first online meetup of R-Ladies Cotonou happened in August 2021 with very few attendees. I made sure everyone knew that having slow internet, putting your camera off, and only communicating via chat was acceptable. Our local chapter is still figuring out things, but there is a trend favoring in-person meetings. 

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?  

The main social media tools I have used to connect with people are email listserv, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Covid did not change that. Collaboration happens mostly via Google forms. Our group owns a GitHub page, and meetup account. We used the R-Ladies zoom account for our online meetup. As a strategy to promote these platforms, I presented all of them at our online event, how to access them, and contribute to the available resources. Besides, I kept using Inkscape and Canva to make flyers for advertisement. “Word of mouth” is one of the most used tools too. Experience showed that people communicate better via the WhatsApp group, which is open to anyone attending our meetups. I believe making the group more inclusive implies keeping promoting our social platforms and attendance at meetups despite the not-so-reliable internet.

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 have moved to the US recently to start my Ph.D., so I haven’t been as active as I would want. I have been entirely disconnected from the R community events. My favorite was our last in-person meetings. We had a workshop about importing and exporting data in R by Ruth Ouangbey. These basic skills are often overlooked when teaching R. I appreciated that she presented base R and tidyverse options. It was a good update for me. On the other side, we also benefited from a lightning talk on the current state of women in STEM and available fellowships, funding, and opportunities by Sherifath Mama. Most of our attendees are women in academia. Note that the positive correlation between R users and Science in my country is quite strong ☺. I think it is always good to know where your peers stand. Moreover, we do not talk enough about job opportunities or scholarships for this underrepresented category, especially in the francophone zone. I once asked an interviewer of a prestigious fellowship for women from developing countries why we were missing on their map of fellows. He replied to me, “You do not apply”. I thought to myself, “We do not know it exists”. We are still at the point where we cannot stop talking about R-Ladies, R Consortium diversity efforts, and Funding for STEM.

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

I think about Tidyverse, data manipulation, improved data handling, and machine learning. Most of the people using R I knew were generally invested in base R. It is fine, but I believe the advancement of data science creates the need sometimes to use less traditional packages. Data science has become a dream job everywhere. I have noticed that many people are trying to dive deeper into data manipulation (everything you can do with data) and machine learning, especially with R. These trends will probably impact the group because most of our members are in academia. If they request workshops or talks on those topics, that’s what we will provide. 

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?

No, I am not aware of any. I have been disconnected from R news, so I probably missed all the good stuff. The only stories including data and R I meet are the “regular” scientific articles ☺ 

When is your next event? Please give details!

I am not 100% sure, but hopefully, between July and October 2022. We have yet to decide if it will be online or in person. Topics are still in the oven, and speakers are not selected either.

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

R- Ladies Global! It is a fantastic project because inclusion and diversity are essential wherever you are on this planet. I better understand the need for inclusion now that I am a representative element of diversity ☺. It is a great community where everyone learns a lot. Since joining the organization, I have grown and acquired various organizational and social skills. Also, I love people coming together and sharing programming in R and sometimes linking it to other languages. 

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

R Certification training prepares you with the adequate skills to teach and constitutes valid proof that you can lead/teach without an academic diploma in statistics, biostats, or similar. With that certification, you have evidence that you know what you are doing. 

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:

A project supporting R Communities in developing countries worldwide. The approaches and methods we use in developed countries are different from what is required in developing countries. Ways of running meetups, advertisement, funding, support, culture, and reception of ideas are many factors that create differences among groups worldwide. The contrasts and inequalities have become very clear and understandable to me during the past year. I often reflect on my personal experience. Running R-Ladies Cotonou has been all about an adaptation of what is available. I participated in the R-Ladies mentoring program, where I discovered that adaptation was crucial for “reviving my sleeping chapter”.  The tools and guides, once available, were mostly tailored for chapters in developed areas. But the structure for R-Ladies was very flexible and facilitated things for me.  

R Communities in emerging countries worldwide would benefit from a specific project that would provide a different framework. For instance, R-Ladies Cotonou took a whole year to receive the R Consortium grant. Such a project would support R Users willing to grow in Data Science or related fields. Another aspect of the project could target training R users (high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels). In some parts of the world, before expecting to find R users or a vivid R community, you first need to create favorable conditions for their birth – teach people what R is and its usefulness in professional, academic, and even artistic life.

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 accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!