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R User Group Philippines Turns 10

By September 12, 2023Blog

The R User Group-Philippines (RUGPH) celebrated its 10th anniversary on the 16th of August. The group marked the occasion with its first physical event since the pandemic, and it highlighted the group’s progress over the past decade. 

The RUG-PH hosted 115 events in the past decade, making it one of the most persistent RUGs. During the pandemic, many RUGs struggled to remain active; however, RUG-PH continued with online events.  

Joe Brillantes and Michelle Alarcon are the two faces behind the group’s success and brilliant track record. The R Consortium recently talked to Joe and Michelle regarding the group’s evolution. They shared their journey with R in their work and their experience keeping the group up and running for a decade. They have also witnessed a growing acceptance of R in the Philippines and the industry. 

Please share about your background and involvement with the RUGS group

Michelle: My name is Michelle Alarcon, and I have been an analytics practitioner since 1999. I used commercially available software at university and brought it with me to the jobs I had. Open source tools were a minor part of my toolkit in practice. In 2013, I founded my analytics consulting firm, Z-Lift Solutions. As a consultant, I aimed to avoid being bound to software vendors that clients might have purchased, such as SAS or SPSS. So, I began searching for a versatile tool that would allow us to offer consultation without being locked into any particular vendor.

That’s when I discovered R, which was unpopular in the Philippines back then. However, R was gaining popularity among practitioners striving to learn analytics without heavy investments. I asked a former classmate from my old school, the University of the Philippines School of Statistics, for advice when I started my consultancy. I wanted to know the tools used by the new generation of statisticians. To my surprise, the curriculum remained largely unchanged over two decades. This realization led me to explore alternatives.

My efforts to ensure a consistent talent pool for consultancy drove me to get connected with Edward Santos, a key figure in the history of the R Users Group. I also connected with Joselito Magadia, a university professor who played a crucial role in the Philippines’ CRAN network. Through Edward and Joselito, I got introduced to the R Users Group. Our annual R Users Group anniversary celebrations often include Edward.

Joe: I’m Joe Brillantes, and I first encountered R in 2007 during my studies in the US. My mathematical statistics instructor introduced me to it. While I initially leaned towards software like MATLAB or Maple, my perspective shifted when I returned to the Philippines. Because of a tight budget, I had to create a portfolio optimization model for a shipping company without using expensive software. R emerged as a more feasible solution.

When I started using R, there wasn’t a community of R Users in the Philippines. Since I was new to it, I asked many questions, mainly to my classmates or other R users in the US. And then, someone started a Google group on R users specific to the Philippines, and that’s when I joined it. It seemed very appealing to me, as I no longer needed to ask people in the US and then wait for them to respond because of the different time zones. 

We did not start the Philippines R Users Group (RUGS); credit goes to Edward Santos. However, I co-organized the group alongside Michelle for the past decade. My commitment to R persisted throughout my career, replacing MATLAB and other software in my toolkit.

Can you share what the R community is like in the Philippines?

Michelle: In the past decade, I’ve witnessed an increasing acceptance of open source programming tools in the Philippines. In 2013, awareness of open source options was scarce. AWS was pivotal in promoting open source use, joined by Java‘s long-standing presence. However, the acquisition of Revolution Analytics by Microsoft was a turning point. Microsoft, on our request, provided us space for hosting our meetups, which were happening at coffee shops before that. Microsoft’s support showcased a shift toward open source.

A decade later, R has gained acceptance as a staple tool for data scientists and analysts, often mentioned alongside Python. Our user group collaborates with other tech communities, like AWS and Python. Interest in R has increased over the years. However, our meetup attendance has plateaued, maintaining a consistent level of participants even during the pandemic when we held virtual events. 

Joe: Today, data science and analytics practitioners in the Philippines typically gravitate toward Python or R. Both languages are considered essential tools. The open source nature of R fosters acceptance within organizations. If an employee is proficient in R, they typically approve its usage due to familiarity. However, an area for further growth is in deploying models. The deployment of predictive and prescriptive analytics models in production remains limited. R is commonly used in data science but not widely in production environments.

You had a Meetup RUG_PH 10th Anniversary. Can you share some details of this event?

R Users Group-Philippines 10th Anniversary Event

Joe:  We recently celebrated the R Users Group – Philippines’ 10th anniversary. We wanted it to be special, so it was also the first time we organized an in-person meetup since the pandemic ended. There were around 20 people who attended, half of whom had attended numerous meetups in the past, while the remaining were first-timers. We were pleasantly surprised that a substantial portion of attendees were first-timers because that indicated that R usage and user groups still have significant growth potential in the Philippines.

Because it’s an anniversary, the primary topic was to review how we’ve grown and changed over the years. Our event venues changed from cafes to company offices to online. Our participants became more diverse in terms of backgrounds and moved from predominantly analysts to a mix of data engineers, data scientists, software engineers, and managers. Participants come from Metro Manila to other areas in the Philippines and even abroad. We had dinner, an icebreaker, a raffle, and networking at the event.

Some participants also volunteered to discuss data visualization for scientific publication and causal inference in future meetups. We will promote these meetups to the community for future events through our Meetup page, Slack workspace, and Facebook page. We’re always happy to see familiar faces and to meet new R users.

Any techniques you recommend using for planning for or during the event? (Github, zoom, other) Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future?   

Joe: We encourage presenters to share their materials soon after the meetup. They usually share them through GitHub or shared drives like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox. We started recording the meetups and plan to share them on our Facebook page. We do these to help attendees continue learning, reach those who couldn’t make it, and encourage future attendance.

We’re still exploring the best way to do hybrid meetups. People attending online usually feel left out in hybrid meetings because of low-quality equipment and lousy internet. Speakers usually select the in-person format as it requires less time and effort than preparing for a hybrid setup. We’re still figuring out the best way to have hybrid meetups that do not isolate online attendees. In the meantime, we ask presenters their preferred format: in-person, online, or hybrid. The voted-out meetup setup would likely be because the presenters are the best people to decide how their content can be best communicated.

I would also like to take this opportunity to reach out to RUGs around the globe. We at the RUG-PH are excited to be part of the global R community through the R Consortium. We look forward to collaborating with other RUGs and welcoming participants from around the globe. 

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!