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Calgary R User Group on the Importance of Math Education

By Blog

Jonathan Lin of the Calgary R User group (meetup | website) talks to R Consortium about their adaptation into the COVID world and their struggles with the higher production value of videos. He also talks about the importance of making statistics and math more approachable to kids to get them more interested in data science in general.

RC: What is the R community like in Calgary?

JL: Speaking of the R community, it’s pretty diverse in Calgary. The main organizers are academic, and I joined primarily with a business background. A large portion of our audience comes from academia and statistical backgrounds, so our discussions are oriented towards studies and dissertations. We also get businesses and petrochemical engineering talks, too, being an Oil & Gas centric hub. The combination makes for a very diverse and interesting set of discussions.

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

JL: Up until this year, we hosted exclusively in-person meetings. While we would post slides after for people to use, we were limited by time needed to properly record our meetings. COVID has forced us to be more accessible. Having online meetings has increased our reach. We were able to advertise to a much wider audience, and also get a bigger range of both speakers outside of Calgary and even Canada. For instance, Edmonton is 3 hours away, and we were able to get a speaker that we wouldn’t have been able to consider before. 

There are some downsides, however. On Zoom, we have less banter and conversation. Our Zoom meetings follow a fairly basic format – the presenter presents, our members ask a few questions, and then participants leave. We also find its harder to organically identify speaking opportunities – Chel Hee Lee (co-organizer) has done an amazing job finding speakers during this time, and we are always looking for contributors.

We wanted to experiment with other platforms to try and break out from this pattern. We tried wonder, the online conferencing app. It showed a lot of promise, and the interaction was good. Zoom has significant momentum, so asking our users to try something new is a culture shift. The general shyness of online users (especially face to face) is a challenge – online, there is little incentive and lots of risk for individuals to engage with strangers. 

There is no substitute for in-person communication… but after doing several meetings online, there is a lot we can learn and integrate back into our in-person meetings.

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?  

JL: We used GitHub since day 1. This is a great way to show a presence both online and locally. It allows people to see prior meetings presentations, code, and other materials. This gave us a relatively easy transition for distributing materials when we started hosted online.

Recording videos is new to us, however. The need for reuse means we need to focus on higher production values, including additional post-event updates. 

The technical issues that come with it are worth the effort though. Having greater access to individuals with disabilities, or even those balancing family life, is the obvious benefit that comes from these changes. It enables access on our YouTube channel, allowing more people to access our content, regardless of their status. 

Ideally we’d continue recording videos, and would love ideas on how to easily put event videos onto Youtube.

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? 

JL: When we have presenters who have done academic work, they come in with a very novel aspect to problem-solving. Abed Ayyad gave a talk about how Alberta has the best solar exposure in Canada. And he didn’t just tell us, but he showed us along with the calculations. Another was by Danielle Clarke on bee habitats and bioversity can be affected by the shape of the habitat, and modelled with GIS and Landscape Analysis. She turned everything into a grid, how diversity was in each grid, and how a change in one area affects other areas. This application of R techniques to academic topics is something that tangibly demonstrates how to apply R to specific problems. I love seeing the cross-pollination of R (pun intended).

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

JL: We’re getting a steady stream of new R users coming into our organization, who want to learn how to use R. We are thinking of doing workshops and helping the community. It is one thing to host these user groups, but actively teaching and learning would be a highly effective way to improve our community.

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?

JL: I was watching Twitter and we had a recent municipal election where one of the people running was investigated after initial voting had taken place. One analysis used R to review how his votes changed from pre-voting to the day of elections. None of them were in our CalgaryR User Group, but it’s awesome to see other Calgarians using R for their work.

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

JL: Our next event (at time of interview) is with Cherri Zhang from the University of Calgary on the Validation of the underlying constructs of survey instruments, relating to the diagnosis and management of concussions. 

And anyone can join our CalgaryR Meetup group to hear about our 2022 and future events!

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

JL: They’re all great, and the following are especially of relevant to us:

  • Setting up an R-Girls-School Network is where we really want to get kids involved with coding earlier. 
  • The Java interactive visualization looks neat. I’m excited about that one. R is blessed with lots of visualization packages, and there are always advantages with one package over another, so I look forward to seeing what this one brings.

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

JL: Distributive Computing and R Certification both are interesting to me. 

Regarding the R Certification – How would you go around getting a common certification in R? Being previously “certified” in a different programming language, I found that certifications do not always indicate a strong competency in the language. 

I feel like Distributive Computing could use some development in the R system due to some of the issues going on currently with data size.

RC: Four projects 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?

For reference, the four current projects are: R Community Diversity and Inclusion, R-Hub, R-Ladies, and R User Group Support Program (RUGS).

JL: Similar to my earlier answer on supporting “R Girls,” one of my co-organizers (Cliff) is strongly passionate about “R kids,” supporting statistics and math fluency for kids. It would help to make coding and statistics more approachable and embedded in the minds before they reach high school. Visualizations, graphs, interactivity and discovery would all help make R more accessible to kids.