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Taking on Virtual Events with Regular Structured and Casual Meetups ☕️

By September 8, 2022Blog

The R Consortium recently interviewed John Blischak and Tim Hoolihan with the Cleveland R UseR Group. The organizers share more about how the group managed to continue to grow with consistent structured and casual virtual events like their Virtual R Café.

John Blischak is a Freelance Scientific Software Developer in the Cleveland area. John has been co-organizer of the Cleveland R UseR Group for several years and has continued to do research and uses R regularly. In his free time, John enjoys spending time with family, reading, and learning foreign languages.

Tim Hoolihan is a Practice Lead at Data and Analytics at Centric Consulting. He has a traditional software background and uses R often for his work projects. In his free time, Tim enjoys spending time with family, playing video games, and practicing the guitar.

Why did you get interested in learning R?

John: For my undergraduate research project in molecular biology, I was paired with a graduate student to analyze gene expression microarrays. He used R and Bioconductor to perform the analysis. I knew if I wanted to continue to do this type of research, I needed to learn R myself. I needed it for my research; it has always been very practical.

Tim: I have a traditional software background. I don’t remember my first exposure to the R language, but I often use it for my work. 

What is the R community like in Cleveland/Independence, Ohio?

Tim: It is quite active! Our members come from all across Northeast Ohio. The UseR group is around 10 years old now, and has been consistently well attended.

John: We are continuing to grow. People of all skill levels have joined wanting to get involved. We haven’t had an in-person meeting since April 2021, however, our online events have been consistent. We’re always looking for new speakers, regardless of experience level. Newcomers are often hesitant to present, but a newcomer’s perspective is invaluable to others that have just started learning R. We are looking for a way to start transitioning back to in-person events in 2023.

Are there any industries in particular that are more active in the R community?

John: I think the 2 largest groups are academics and business folks. The academics come from the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western, and other local universities. The business analysts apply R to generate insights into finance, marketing, etc. Two larger local companies with R users are Progressive Insurance (also a sponsor of our group) and American Greetings.

Tim: We cover a broad range of practitioners including medical, insurance, manufacturing, academia, and other fields. 

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

John: It has had its pros and cons. By meeting virtually, we’ve been able to greatly expand our presenters and attendees far beyond the Cleveland area. But, of course, it’s hard to replace the in-person experience in virtual-only settings. Recording in-person events helped the switch to virtual and made it a lot easier. Even before covid, we would record and upload our talks to our Youtube channel, some videos receive over 800 views, which is good in our community. This also makes it easier for those who can’t attend to be kept up to speed with what is happening in the meetup. 

Tim: We have managed to continue to offer virtual meetups regularly. Being virtual meant we could reach out to speakers all over the world to talk to the group.

We did see some zoom fatigue, though. We wanted to offer something more interactive rather than the standard presentation and questions format. We came up with Virtual R Café, which gives members a chance to hang out with other R coders for a bit. It will be informal with no set topic. It is more interactive and casual for members to connect. Our next Virtual R Café will be on September 10th, 9 AM EDT. 

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?  

John: We got a pro zoom account! Tim also had the idea to start our Virtual R Café series, which is just a casual hangout on the second Saturday of the month. As opposed to meetups with a presentation, these events give members more time to get to know each other and share their experiences with R. 

Tim: We also use the meetup page and mailing list to share updates and announcements. There is also a GitHub organization to share items during presentations.

John demonstrating the OmicNavigator ( OmicNavigator is an R package for organizing, sharing, and exploring the results of genomics experiments.

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? 

John: Our most unique “Cleveland R” talk was when we had Evan Tachovsky present on how he used R to create the maps in his book Maps of Cleveland (video). 

Tim: My favorite recent presentation was Max Kuhn on TidyModels

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

John: The biggest trend I’ve not noticed is how R integrates with other tools in the data science ecosystem. For example, someone who has started using Python for data science is interested in what they can do with R. Or a business analyst that primarily uses a tool like Power BI or Tableau wants to start leveraging the power of R.

Tim: This is more of a long-term trend but the difference between tidyverse and non-tidyverse programming has become a recurring theme. On the integration side, there are more and more projects that seem to be combining R with other tools.

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?

John: I’m not aware of any data journalism in the Cleveland area, but from nearby in Columbus, I know that Lucia Walinchus at Eye on Ohio used R to analyze the data for her story How Much are you Overpaying in Property Tax? She shared her experience in her talk at SatRday Columbus 2020.

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

John:  I have lots of favorites! R-hub from Gábor Csárdi has become essential for me as a way to conveniently test my R packages on many different operating systems. I occasionally get the rare error on Solaris, and R-hub is my only option for fixing this. I also love the SatRdays project founded by Stephanie Locke. I co-organized SatRday Columbus 2020 and 2021 (both virtual of course). Lastly, I appreciate all the work that Jeroen Ooms has done recently to make it so easy to install R on Windows.

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

John: The one I am following most closely is the R7 project. All the current OOP frameworks have their tradeoffs, so I’m curious to try what they develop.

Tim: The Distributed Computing project is interesting in the age of so many cloud and distributing computing platforms. In addition, I think the R Certification project fills an important need.

When is your next event? Please give details!

John: We’re excited for our upcoming guest speakers in Sep and Oct:

  • Matt Dupree on Sep 28th: Metaprogramming in R
  • Meghan Harris on Oct  26th: Data validation with pointblank

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!