Alice Walsh and Karla Fettich of the R Ladies Philly talked to the R Consortium about the thriving R Community in Philadelphia. The group has broadened its reach both locally and internationally during the pandemic. However, they have a deep commitment to the local community and remain focused on local issues. Every year, the group partners with local non-profit organizations to host a Datathon to promote learning while contributing to the local community.
Alice Walsh is a founding organizer of the R Ladies Philly. She works at Pathos, an Oncology Therapeutics company, using data to position cancer drugs. Alice got her Ph.D. in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work is at the intersection of bioinformatics, molecular biology, and data science.
Karla Fettich is a co-organizer of the R Ladies Philly. She works as a Senior Data Scientist at AmeriHealth Caritas, where she builds identification and stratification solutions for different populations in the healthcare industry, and coordinates larger data science efforts. Karla got her Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from Temple University.
What is the R community like in Philadelphia?
Alice: The R community in Philadelphia is very vibrant, I would say. Even though it’s not known as a technology hub, Philadelphia is a city with a lot of data and tech happening. It’s not like the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, but there’s a very vibrant data science tech community in Philadelphia.
We know other R-User groups and Data Science groups in Philadelphia, and we have collaborated with them. There’s the Data Philly Group and also the Philly R-User Group, which took a hiatus during the pandemic and is back now. There are also some Python groups.
The Healthcare industry in Philadelphia is robust and several members of our group are working in healthcare. We also have several members who work in media because Comcast is a large local employer. Overall, the Philadelphia R community is characterized by a focus on specific industries.
Karla: Not only vibrant but it’s also a great, supportive, and fun community. We have been to a couple of Python events and they just really don’t have that vibe. In the R community, people are keen to learn. Users at all levels are happy to share their knowledge and learn from others. There’s always a lot of excitement and everyone’s just really eager to work together. So the R community in Philadelphia has been very collaborative.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
Alice: Our pre-pandemic events were always in person and for many people, it was difficult to commute. Our events are now online, and we have been able to reach a lot more people. We also have an audience joining our events internationally, and it has been amazing to broaden our reach during the pandemic. It has also become easier to share our events because we record them and upload them on our YouTube channel.
But now we are figuring out that some events are better online than in person. We don’t do a lot of speaking events and most of our events are interactive workshops. And I have actually found that it is very good to be delivered in an online format.
We have also realized that it is really difficult to do networking online. And that is also something which was an important part of our mission. Connecting people to mentors who are in the industry can help them with career moves and things like that. We have done online networking events, but I think that’s something we have to do in person. So from now on, we are trying to be very strategic about when we have an in-person event versus when we have an online event. We want to pick the format that best suits the content and makes us reach a maximum number of people. We are still figuring it out.
Karla: I just wanted to add to the comment about how we can now reach an international or broader audience. It’s been great. Not necessarily globally, but also reaching the people who might not commute to a physical location though they are around in the area. We have been able to reach more of those. But I think the challenge we have encountered is trying to stay true to our mission, which is to focus on the local community. So we love and appreciate having a global community join us. But it has made it tricky to figure out how we can still keep the local essence of our chapter.
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?
Alice: Maybe a good example of how we use different tools would be our collaborative community data project we have every year, which is Karla’s brainchild. We pair up with a local nonprofit to help them work with their data. Volunteers from our community work with them to show them what they can do with their data. The volunteers get training to work with an actual dataset, and the training partner gets to learn something useful to take forward. Maybe they hire data scientists or maybe they decide there’s more potential to use their data.
So that project then involves a lot of collaboration. We use Zoom to do the actual kickoff meeting with the partner, and we use tools like Slido for organizing Q&A during live events. We use Google Docs for additional Q&A, usually to capture questions and answers asynchronously. People type in their questions and when the partner has time, they can go in and answer them. We also have a Slack workspace where teams can have their own channels. In the past, they would meet in a coffee shop and work on it together. Instead, now they meet up in the Slack channel or have a Zoom meeting to discuss what they are working on.
I think that’s a good example of how we use a lot of different tools for one project. And then we aggregate all the code and results to GitHub. We always have a repo for each year’s projects and that way we can bring everything together in a final report.
I think the plan is that we will continue to have a mix of online and in-person events. Right now, I think it is a challenge for small groups like us, without a big budget, to host a hybrid event. That requires a media team because your speaker needs a microphone and someone needs to film. We would love to have a technology solution to make it happen.
For now, we will host in-person events when we feel it can be done better in person. We will also try to have a lot of programming workshops online, so that we can kind of have the best of both worlds. Recently, when we tried to move back to in-person events, many people asked us if we will be a hybrid event. But we don’t have the technical capability to do that at the moment. I think other people are figuring it out, so maybe we can learn from them, but it’s definitely a challenge.
Karla: For the Datathons, we used to have the kickoff and conclusion meetings in person. People could come and present their findings and have the partners involved. It was also a good way to ask questions, get everybody involved, and network. These meetings have moved online, and it has been easy to record and save for people to refer back to. While everything else went really well online, I feel that the first and last meetings worked better in person.
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?
Karla: I would like to mention this year’s Datathon which went from February to March. Our partner this year was a non-profit organization that helps elderly or disabled people in the community and connects them with the services they need. They hadn’t really explored their data, and they really wanted to know their impact on their community.
So we split our team of volunteers into three different groups, each tackling a different aspect of the question. One group focused on the impact on the community and another group focused on data visualization and helping in putting it together for decision making. That’s something we know is really useful in the industry, but not everyone takes advantage of that. Another group focused on opportunities for further growth and comparisons between current impact and what else is out there.
So it’s been a very insightful Datathon because each team dug really deep into the data. They presented the data in a way that was clear and would help the organization. The organization has really taken this report to heart, and they have been working on it. It helped them rethink how they relate to the data and what data collection they should do going forward so that they can leverage data better in the future. I know their board is currently discussing the results as well, so they are planning on taking action based on the results. It has been a really fascinating Datathon, just like the ones in the past. Each Datathon uncovers something really interesting and leads to other projects afterward.
Alice: The thing that I find really special about doing this work is that we always focus on issues that are important to our local community and local groups. So this year we were working with a local nonprofit that works with the local senior citizens and folks who need help. It is very meaningful, and that’s been our mission as well. So while we love having reached a broader audience now, we want to make sure that we can focus on what makes Philadelphia unique and try to tap into that.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
Alice: We see trends in the topics people are interested in. Most of our events in the past have been very educational. We usually have people do a workshop on a specific package or an intermediate or advanced R topic because that’s been very popular. So we have trends over time on what’s popular, and the workshops people are interested in attending and presenting.
For example, we are doing a book club this summer to talk about using tidymodels. The tidymodels framework is relatively new to R, and machine learning has always been a big topic that people enjoy. I think it’s mostly because it’s broadly relevant across all industries. I do oncology research, and there are applications there, but also in manufacturing, geospatial and other fields. So when new packages or developments come out related to these core topics, they will influence our programming. Over time, there are changes in the R landscape which bring changes in what we talk about.
Karla: I think recently, machine learning and data visualization have been popular. I think geospatial stuff has also been very popular in the past. We are actively listening to our community and seeing what they are interested in learning and doing, and try to accommodate that with workshops. We try to encourage people who are interested in that topic to lead a talk or a workshop, and they don’t have to be experts. They can either do it themselves or they can find experts to do that. We encourage people to speak up about what they are interested in and then we tailor our events.
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?
Alice: I can’t think of something super specific by our members. In the past, some of our Datathon efforts have hit on local issues around which there has been journalism. For example, the opioid epidemic is very important in Philadelphia. Because we have been very hard hit by opioid use disorder, and there’s a project we did there. That was a couple of years ago now.
Karla: From that Datathon, another project emerged. Because during that project, one thing we were focusing on was mapping treatment locations for opioid use disorder. They have actually taken that idea and worked towards putting up a website and it has been released recently.
When is your next event? Please give details!
Our next event should be on our Meetup. We are doing a community-wide book club around tidymodels and that is coming up in August.
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