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Eswatini R Users Group Forging Ahead Despite Pandemic Hurdles

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R Consortium recently caught up with Emmanuel Olamijuwon and Nontsikelelo Shongwe, organizers of the Eswatini R Users Group (Twitter: EswatiniUseR). They discussed how the R user base is growing in Eswatini and how the pandemic has affected them. (Eswatini is located in southeastern Africa, surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique.) Although the COVID pandemic really affected their community, the group is gearing up to restore the former status quo before the pandemic hit.

What is the R community like in Eswatini?

The R community in Eswatini is expanding significantly, and we are optimistic it will continue doing so. Apart from tertiary students and the corporate world, there have been calls for adoption and use of Free and Open-Source Software in teaching and learning in Eswatini’s secondary and high school. This is perhaps the reason behind the growth of the R community in the country.

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

The COVID pandemic has greatly affected us. We haven’t been able to meet physically because of the restrictions that came with the pandemic. Having virtual meetings has also been impossible due to limited internet connectivity — not everyone has internet access because of the cost — and for those with internet access, the speed is slow. 

In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? 

The Internet has always been a challenge that’s why we haven’t been able to use any online platforms, such as GitHub or Zoom. We have only used WhatsApp, but only for the organizers so we could share important communications.

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?

We had Heather Turner do a presentation on diversity and inclusion in R. It was exciting to see what R-Ladies community groups are doing and how we fit in as a community.

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

I am not sure if this is a trend, but I would love to see R incorporated with Python. Not necessarily to see which language is better but in order to get maximum results from the two. 

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?

Currently not really any. However, we heard in the local newspaper of an initiative UN Eswatini was running to educate journalists in the country about data journalism. That’s the only data journalism project we have heard about.

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

Emmanuel: I love the Setting up an R-Girls Schools Network project. It is my favorite probably because I joined the R community through R-Ladies South Africa. I had gone to one of their meetings and one of the organizers advised me to start an R-User group so I started. I love its goal which is to increase representation and participation of girls in R. This happens to be one of the things I would love to see as well.

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

Nontsikelelo: My favorite is R/Pharma. It is my favorite because it focuses on easening decision-making environments and health technology assessment for Health Analysts through utilizing R. 

When is your next event? Please give details!

We are still in talks with other organizers when we can have our next meeting.

R Accra Talks About Expanding R in Ghana

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It can be difficult running an R user group in a country where R does not have a large following. R Consortium talked with Francis Mensah, who runs the R Users group in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Francis discussed how they went virtual during the pandemic, and how they are working on ways to help grow R users in Ghana.

Francis is a Statistical Consultant, Data Quality Scientist, Chief Operations Manager, M$E Fellow, Programmer, Data Analyst, and Principal R Organizer and co-founder for the Accra R Users Group. He is also a Business Development Consultant for Kims International. Kims International provides M&E, Research and Capacity Building in education, public health, gender, water and sanitation and livelihood for governmental and non-governmental institutions. 

RC: What is the R community like in Accra?

FM: The R community in Accra is relatively new. Most people here are not aware of it. Most people here use Stata or SPSS, as they are taught in schools here. Awareness in Ghana is relatively low for R. We are trying to create awareness of R through our group.

RC: How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

FM: Because of restrictions imposed, we have not been able to meet face to face. Because of this, we meet online. We were planning our first meeting when COVID came. We meet almost every weekend virtually. We get people from not just Accra, but a lot of international people as well.

RC: 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?  

FM: For our meetings, we use zoom, goto meeting, and WhatsApp to meet virtually. These work best for us. We will also try to have a Ghana R conference with other groups as well. We will use the same apps for our meeting for the country-wide one.

RC: 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? 

FM: What Every Data Scientist Must Know About Teaching and Learning by Greg Wilson. Everyone was happy and excited after the presentation. It opened our eyes. When going through the technology we use, it can be difficult to see. He used images to go through the talk. They were highly effective. It was so well received that members asked when the speaker was coming through again. It was very exciting and it opened our eyes to teaching and learning for all of our members, including me.

Another good one was given by Dr. Riinu about ggplot that we were excited about because it was about graphics. The part that we liked was that she gave out exercises to try during the presentation.

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

FM: Over the next year we believe using R to get insight into and finding solutions for Health, finance, Agriculture and the economy as a whole. With the census ongoing, we hope to get data for some of these.

RC: 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?

FM: We have one member who uses data to tell stories about events that happen in Ghana. She uses it for data presentations. 

RC: When is your next event? Please give details!

FM: We are having a speaker from Argentina speak. She will talk about creating packages using learnr through R. This will be in September. We also have a speaker in September from Spain who will also talk about creating a package in R as well. We will also do local programs on zoom in the meantime.

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

FM: Interactive visualisations in R via R-to-JavaScript-transpilation.In general I like data visualization and it’s wonderful to explore.

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

FM: R Certification. Being proficient in R will also help in our effort to spread the use of R in Ghana as a whole and it’s also a source of motivation to do more with R

RC: 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?

FM: I think something along the lines of R Clinics to bring awareness in all tertiary institutions and industry. For instance, they could develop R clinics and workshops in Ghana that professor’s and industry players or members would use the software. Again Data journalism would be great here in Ghana

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 4 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.

R Communities in South Africa

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R Consortium interview with Dr. Heather Turner, Chair of Forwards, the R Foundation taskforce for underrepresented groups in the R Community

In January, R Consortium posted about a crowd-funding campaign for Building the R Community in Southern Africa. In February, they successfully raised £2,700 with 44 supporters in 28 days. Fantastic!

We wanted to get a mid-year update and also more details on R communities in Southern Africa so we spoke with Dr. Heather Turner, chair of Forwards, a R Foundation taskforce for underrepresented groups. Dr. Turner is a Honorary Research Fellow of the Statistics Department at the University of Warwick, UK. She brings nearly 20 years of experience with R. Recently, Dr. Turner raised money to fund several workshops and talks in order to develop the R community in South Africa. 


What were some of the interesting ways R is being used in Southern Africa?

R is being used in academia, government organisations, non-profits and businesses. It is perhaps not as common as SPSS or Python, but an enthusiastic community is growing. I was able to discover where R was being used through the people I met and the companies that hosted or supported some of the events. However, the Johannesburg satRday was my main opportunity to see how R was being used. Several of the talks had an African focus, such as Anelda van der Walt’s talk on the afrimapr project making it easier to map data by administrative regions:

Kirsty Lee Garcon’s talk on mapping African genomic data with the sf package:

And Astrid Radermacher’s talk on unravelling the mysteries of resurrection plants (specifically, a native African one) using various R packages:

Among the general R talks, I particularly enjoyed Diana Pholo’s talk “From Pythonista to Rtist”, which gave practical advice:

Drikus du Toit’s talk on SHAP: Interpreting ML Models with IML (), which looked at modelling whether a person would default on a loan.

And Roberto Bennetto’s talk on exploring the Corona outbreak with R, which, back in March 7, was one the first looks I’d had at data from the pandemic.

How has R literacy helped to empower women in areas like Johannesburg or Kampala where satRday events have been hosted?

Learning R is one way that women can unlock the power of data science. This can be directly applied to issues of gender equality as Caroline Akoth demonstrated through her talk on the work of Women in GIS, Kenya, at satRday Johannesburg.

Alternatively, it can give women the opportunity to lead the way to more open, reproducible practices, as satRday Kampala keynote Shelmith Kariuki recently demonstrated by extracting the Kenya Population and Housing Census results from PDF files and publishing them as tidy datasets in her rKenyaCensus package:

In general, expertise in R is a powerful skill that can help women to progress in their careers and make a difference in the world.

The satRday events play an important role in inspiring women to pursue data science and to take on responsibilities in the R community. After the satRday in Abidjan, three women joined the board of the Abidjan R Users group and they have already been active in planning and leading R training. The first satRdays in Africa were held in Cape Town and the organizing team made a concerted effort to have a strong representation of women in the program, inviting only women keynotes and proactively encouraging women to submit abstracts. This commitment to the inclusion of women has continued with the subsequent South African satRdays and has been very effective. It can be motivating for women in the audience to see women on stage; after the first Cape Town satRday, Theoni Photopoulou was inspired to start an R-Ladies group. She was joined by Megan Beckett and they co-founded R-Ladies Cape Town. Since then, there has been a symbiotic relationship between R-Ladies and satRdays in South Africa, where one helps to promote the other and both help to strengthen women’s R literacy and social networks.

The community and social network are just as important as R literacy. R-Ladies groups such as those in Cape Town and Johannesburg provide a particularly supportive space for women and gender minorities to learn R. But satRdays and regular R User Groups also help to connect women to R users outside their university or workplace. For some women, these connections have lead directly to new jobs requiring (more) R expertise. More generally, women can tap into their network to help them navigate interviews, negotiate competitive salaries and handle both technical and inter-personal issues that come up in their work.

As women learn more about R and are supported by the community, they become confident in themselves, impacting the wider community. For example, Astrid Radermacher, a co-organizer of R-Ladies Cape Town, has started to run free R classes at her institution and it is mostly women that attend. Shakirah Nakalungi, a co-organizer of the satRday in Kampala, is an ambassador for Zindi, a Kaggle-like platform focused on solving Africa’s most pressing problems. R-Ladies Johannesburg has partnered with ‘Women in Big Data’, ‘Coding Mamas’, ‘WiMLDS’ and other groups, widening their impact. In this way, women empowered by learning R pay it forward within the R community and beyond.

Your data ( shows that the average age for packet authors was approximately 39 years old. Has it been your experience that young adults find R to be daunting?

I don’t think that young adults find R to be daunting any more than older adults. The data you refer to is quite old now (from 2010); back then it was still unusual for R to be taught at undergraduate level. So most people would learn R during their postgraduate studies or later in life and it would take a few years to get to the stage where they might write a package, hence most package authors were over 25. I would expect the distribution to have shifted a little to younger ages these days, however the average age would still be relatively old, as thankfully writing an R package is not a fatal event and us older maintainers live on!

What has been the most gratifying part of putting on events like R-Ladies or satRday? The most frustrating?

The most gratifying part is people enjoying the event. It’s great when you get positive feedback or people post something online saying how they learnt something that they’re keen to try out or how they felt welcomed and supported by the folks at the event. The frustrating part is people wanting a lot more from you when you’ve volunteered to do a particular thing. On the one hand, it’s often something I would want to do and would be good at. On the other, the small asks add up and can become too much, so something has to give. This is challenging to me as a community organizer, it’s easiest to say “X is good at that, let’s ask them”, but we need to be respectful of people’s time and keep looking to bring new people in to share the work.

Do you see R being used more in Africa over the coming 3-5 years? 

Yes I do. My impression is that R is not widely taught in universities across Africa, but initiatives like eR-Biostat are helping to change that. Often students will self-learn R, or learn through a one-off workshop perhaps by a visiting lecturer or run by the Carpentries. R users that are trying to encourage others to use or learn R can face a couple of frustrating attitudes. One is that R is only used in universities and is not useful in other sectors. Another is that R is something to be feared because increased automation may make people’s jobs redundant. Such attitudes are why I think it is critical to build the community around R, with R user groups, satRdays and online networks, so that people can see the variety of ways R is used and see that increasing data science literacy can lead to more interesting, skilled work. The R community is growing in Africa and I think this in turn will encourage wider adoption of R in the next few years.

Building the R Community in Southern Africa

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By Heather Turner, Chair of Forwards, the R Foundation taskforce for underrepresented groups in the R Community

In this post I will give the background to the Forwards Southern Africa 2020 project, for which we are running a crowd-funding campaign until February 5, 2020.

On March 6-7, 2020, Johannesburg will host the fourth satRday to be held in South AfricasatRdays are community-led, regional conferences, that support collaboration, networking and innovation within the R community. They were initiated by an R Consortium funded project, that ran pilot events in Budapest and Cape Town in 2016/2017. The conference series has been expanding around the world since then, with ten events in 2019.

For Joburg satRday 2020, I was invited to be a keynote speaker. As chair of Forwards, the R Foundation taskforce for underrepresented groups, I saw this as an opportunity to create an initiative focused on building the R Community in Southern Africa.

A first step was to offer a workshop on R package development, using the materials developed under the R Consortium project, Forwards Workshops for Women and Girls. This project ran package development workshops for women in New Zealand, Budapest and Chicago. Since there are still some funds left in the grant, we are able to offer some scholarships to women in Africa to attend the Joburg workshop and satRday. Women with visa-free access to South Africa may apply; the deadline for applications is midnight SAST, January 31.

The next step was to look beyond South Africa, to neighbouring countries. The following map shows cities in Africa with R-Ladies groups (purple), R User Groups (blue) or both (blue-grey):

The AfricaR consortium that took off at the start of 2019 has really helped to support the R community across Africa and has lead to the founding of several R User Groups, as well as the first satRday in East Africa (Kampala 2019) and the first satRday in West Africa which will take place in Abidjan, February 1, 2020. In Southern Africa, there are strong R User Groups and R-Ladies groups in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, but the R Community is only just starting to go beyond South Africa, with the establishment of Eswatini useRs last year.

UPDATE: The Adidjan satRday event was a big success! Here’s a photo of the full group. Videos of the talks should be available online soon.

The Forwards Southern Africa Project aims to build on this foundation, by organizing free workshops and meetups in collaboration with local partners in Eswatini, Botswana and Namibia. This project is also supported by the WhyR Foundation and AfricaR. The details of the events are still being finalised, but the planned itinerary is as follows:

Windhoek, Namibia (March 4, 2020, TBC)

In partnership with the Department of Statistics and Population Studies, University of Namibia:

  • Introduction to R for data analysis workshop (1 day)
  • Launch event of the first R User Group in Namibia

Manzini, Eswatini (March 11-12, 2020)

In partnership with the recently established Eswatini useR group. Registration is open for this 2 day event, that includes:

  • Introduction to R for data analysis workshop (1 day)
  • Data visualization workshop (1/2 day)
  • Meetup including talk on the R community and resources available for newcomers

Gaborone, Botswana (March 14, 2020)

In partnership with WiMLDS Gaborone and PyData Botswana:

  • Introduction to R workshop (1/2 day)

All these events can be supported via the crowdfunder where further updates will be posted. Updates will also be shared on the Forwards Twitter.