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COVID Is Accelerating the Growth and Reach of the R-Ladies Johannesburg Community

By Blog

The R consortium recently checked in with Vebashini Naidoo, one of the organizers of the R-Ladies Johannesburg. The group started in July 2018 and has so far had 19 physical meetings and 16 online meetings. Their shift to online has allowed the group to become a global community, with the leadership team from the Gauteng province in South Africa. Vebashini shared how they have leveraged the COVID pandemic to expand their reach beyond South Africa.

What is the R community like in your country?

Our community is very diverse. We are people from different ethnic, gender and academic backgrounds. We have people from academia, and different industries such as banking, telecommunications, journalism, law and epidemiology.

Members of the community are so enthusiastic and appreciative of the speakers. I think Africans, in particular, are thirsty for knowledge because we know that’s the way to elevate African people. Our members are very engaged in the talks. 

Before COVID 19 hit we expanded R-Ladies Johannesburg because my co-organizer is from Pretoria. This has made R-Ladies Johannesburg to grow and become R-Ladies Gauteng. However, rebranding ourselves to R-Ladies Gauteng is quite a long mission since people know us on Twitter and Meetup as R-Ladies Johannesburg, but our current perimeter goes beyond the city of Johannesburg. 

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

As with any human being, even if you are an introvert, you still need to see people every once in a while. But, with COVID and the vaccination rates in South Africa being quite low—only about 38% of the adult population is fully vaccinated at the moment, our meetings have migrated and stayed online. When we were meeting physically, we used to eat pizza together and interact. I guess that’s the one thing we dearly miss.

However, COVID has been like a blessing in disguise for our community. Now our community has gone international, which is a good opportunity to bring speakers from across the world to our local audience. Previously, that wasn’t possible. 

Before COVID, it was so hard to get speakers locally. We tried contacting universities and inviting those doing interesting work in South Africa to come speak for us, but with the meetings being physical, we were limited by the number of people to invite. With us being online, we now have a wide range of speakers to invite.

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 used Zoom for video conferences. We were lucky because R-Ladies set up a Zoom account for the R-Ladies user groups. They did that nearly immediately when COVID hit. It is very convenient for us, because whenever we want to have a meetup, we access a calendar and book a session if the slot is available. We are probably going to remain online even after the pandemic is under control for the reason that online meetings have expanded our reach and given an opportunity to those that could not attend our in-person meetings.

Having online meetings has also enabled us to record our meetings and upload them on the R-Ladies global YouTube channel. The nice thing about this is people can watch our sessions at a time convenient for them. That’s another blessing the pandemic has bestowed upon us. 

We’ve always used and continue to use GitHub. Whenever a speaker gives us materials, we upload them on GitHub. Regarding online discussion groups, we haven’t had any so far. 

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 Diana Pholo, she did a presentation on incorporating Auth0 to implement authentication for Shiny. Like where you would have different people have different user profiles, and the contents they access would also be different. She did an entire setup (with authentication) using Auth0 to allow people to log on and access different materials from each other. People without login credentials wouldn’t be able to have access to the Shiny app at all. That was quite interesting.

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

One thing is with tidymodels ecosystem growing as it is, as well as the package enhancements in that ecosystem, I think that will give the world more opportunity to use R more widely. The other is the addition of R to the AWS cloud environment. I believe that is another step to wider adoption of R in businesses.

In South Africa, most businesses are more into SAS/Matlab. They are not embracing R, and when there is adoption of open source, they are more inclined towards Python. I think having R in AWS cloud is a step in the right direction to getting more adoption of the language across companies and academia. Most people I talk to love R, they love the ease of use of the language. 

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?

We have a member (she hasn’t come to many meetups but we’d still like to think of her as part of the community) that works for a local online data journalism magazine called Outlier. They do an amazing job when it comes to data journalism here in South Africa.

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

I like the Setting up an R-Girls Schools Network. The reason it is my favorite is that there is a lot of underrepresentation of women in technical fields such as data science, and I want to see more equality in the tech fields in the future. Projects like that go a long way to meeting that goal. If that project becomes successful in the UK, I believe the materials can be distributed and copied as a recipe to the rest of the world.

Africa in particular, is in desperate need of such projects, not just for women or girls but for African children. The project’s focus is on girl children, but for us as Africans it can be a recipe to follow for our African schools. 

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

The R community Diversity and Inclusion is my favorite, though I am not sure if it is still active. The R consortium is very supportive of R groups that are trying to bring diversity and inclusion, such as the R-Ladies groups, AfricaR etc. This project is similar to why I chose the R-Girls schools one because it focuses on equality.  

When is your next event? Please give details!

In 2019, I did an R package tutorial for our group, and my co-organizer asked me if I can do an online one for some of her colleagues working in the university. That will be one of the presentations that’s coming up in the first half of next year.

We are in talks with a couple of people at the moment. There is one lady who uses R for artistry and another one who uses the gm package to make music in R. (Editor’s note: The package name “gm” means “grammar of music” or “generate music.”). She will probably speak to us early next year.