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Going Global During the Pandemic

By November 22, 2022Blog

Vassilis Georgiou of the AthensR User Group talked to the R-Consortium about the group’s journey during the pandemic. Even though the group wasn’t hosting very regular online meetups, it remained active by becoming a part of the Global R User Group. This group allowed the members of AthensR to attend events from R Users Groups around the globe. Vassilis hopes to revive the group’s local events and expand its reach.

Vassilis is the Director-Innovation at IRI, Athens. He has a Ph.D. in Statistics-Computational Intelligence from the University of Patras.

How did you get interested in R?

I work for a company named IRI, which is based in Chicago and has an office in Athens. We perform market analysis in the retail industry. We gather receipts from supermarkets across the globe, organize the data, and run a series of analytics. I am the director of the R & D team and develop different algorithms and we do all of this in R. Everything we do is in R, from prototyping to developing. We also develop shiny applications to give the stakeholders preliminary results and get feedback. Once an algorithm is final we give it to the software engineers who will build web applications in Java or another language on a large scale. There are also cases where we give access to clients to R Shiny web apps. This is my professional contact with R. Besides that, it has now been several years since we started the AthensR group. 

What is the R community like in Greece? Can you name a few industries using R in Greece?

Many universities in Greece teach R and there are many people who are proficient in R in both academia and industry. Almost all statistics departments mainly use R and it is also becoming popular in other fields like electrical engineering. There is a realization that while MATLAB/Python is useful, they need to use R for statistical things. 

In our company, we have been asked many times why we use R and not Python because they feel Python is a more complete language. We have given them some case studies. For example, if you are running a simple regression analysis but have multicollinearity issues in R you would not get coefficients of this variable. In Python, it will give a coefficient of 1 billion which is useless. So this way we convince them that for statistics we will stick to R. 

Besides the AthensR there are other R user groups in Greece. I know about the Patras R User Group, but there are a few others. Many companies use R for R & D mostly. In our company, 80 percent of our development in R is mostly for R & D prototyping. R can be used in production but there are some restrictions to take into account. And since we don’t always know who will be using it and how skillful they will be, we try to avoid providing access to R source code in production but provide access to Shiny web apps that protect the source code from being accidentally altered. We use statistical modeling R codes internally for our delivery teams and operations teams to run it themselves. 

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

Not just in the case of our group, I feel that shifting meetups online overall has made it difficult to network. While in most events the speakers are very accommodating and the events are interactive, the element of networking is definitely missing and people are not able to bond. 

During the pandemic, we did not host regular meetups online. However, I was contacted by Nicolas Attalides who is organizing the Global R User Group. It is a meetup that brings together R Users Group from all over the world and provides them with a common platform. So whenever there was a new talk planned, we would also publish it in our local R Users Group. Since most groups were hosting online events, members of our group had the opportunity to listen to speakers from Brighton, Barcelona, Vienna, Tunisia, and many other places. So in a way, the pandemic gave our group access to R talks from around the globe.

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?  

We have been using Zoom for our online meetups. We do not currently have a Youtube Channel or a GitHub account. We would like to host hybrid events in the future so that we can hold on to this sense of inclusion and people from around the globe can attend the events. 

I need to expand the organizing committee of our group to start hosting hybrid events. During the pandemic, I have been working remotely, so I am not based in Athens. I also struggle to find enough time to manage the group, as I have been single-handedly organizing the group. I hope to find some new organizers based in Athens who can help me organize physical and hybrid meetups. Expanding the organizing committee will help us in reaching out to more people. We are currently a group of around 150 people, however, the number of R users in Athens is much higher than this. Only from the universities every year I would say at least 4-500 people graduating who for sure have broad exposure to R. 

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? 

There was a really interesting talk titled Bayesian item response modeling in R with brms back in April. It was organized by Oslo UseR! group and the author of the BRMS package Paul Burkner presented it. Also, there were a couple of really nice introductory talks last year with Shiny and with data manipulation by Nicolas Attalides. They were really nice for people who don’t have a lot of experience. He gave a really detailed step-by-step demo on how you can build shiny applications from scratch without knowing anything about HTML or developing web applications. You can publish your application in just a few minutes. In half an hour you have your own app and you can give the URL to someone. 

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

For now, my focus is to expand the organizing committee of the group and start hosting more regular physical or hybrid meetings. I also hope to expand our group by attracting more members and expanding the organizing team. I think efforts in these directions will have a much greater impact on our group as opposed to the trends in the R language. 

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

MATTER 2.0: larger-than-memory data for R. It is a main issue of R to be able to efficiently handle data objects that do not fit in memory. Such an initiative could help R penetration even more.

When is your next event? Please give details!

We currently don’t have any upcoming events planned just yet. You can stay updated via our Meetup Group.

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!