R Consortium recently talked to Francisco Rodriguez-Sanchez of Seville R User Group (also on Twitter) about the growth of the group over the years and the challenges of online events. Francisco discussed the diverse nature of the R community in Seville and the importance of physical events for the community. He also shared their struggle with finding speakers for their events and the tricks they have acquired from other groups to overcome this issue.
Francisco is a Data Scientist, Computational Ecologist, and R programmer. He did his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Seville and is currently doing his research on forests and climate change.
What is the R community like in Seville?
Seville is a medium-sized city with a population of about 1.5 million, including the outskirts. It is a pretty big city and there are many people using R. There is a delightful mix of people from universities, research institutes, and also people who use R for their work. Although there are not many big industries in Seville, there are many businesses doing analytics and machine learning stuff. Many of them use R. So we have a pleasant mix of academic and private businesspeople using R for many things.
I guess there are probably over 10,000 people (maybe many more) using R in Seville. Of course, not all of them come to the user group. But in the group right now, there are over 600 people on Meetup, and we also have over 600 followers on Twitter. We created the group in 2014, but we were a tiny group. In 2017, we started using Meetup with 100 members and the group grew quickly. In meetings, we have normally between 20 to 40 people.
If we talk about Spain, Madrid and Barcelona are the biggest cities and have big and very active R communities. They also have R-Ladies groups and a lot of innovative stuff is happening over there. Most of the businesses are based in Barcelona or Madrid, although we have a few here in Seville as well. R is also being taught in universities, so people who attend universities get exposed to it. In the private sector, some people use R, but Python is also very strong.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
We stopped having our regular meetings because of COVID. The last meeting we had was in February 2020. We only had some activity on Twitter and hosted a couple of online events. When the situation looked better, we tried to plan meetings, but things started getting worse again. It was a complicated situation, and you couldn’t really plan to get people in a room to meet.
Last year, in November, we planned another physical meeting. The Omicron wave came in January, so we had to switch to online again. We had a meeting at the end of January.
During the pandemic, R groups worldwide organized really amazing online events. Recordings of many great talks from different R users’ groups and R conferences are available online. So we didn’t feel the need to fill that niche and preferred to stay quiet.
As a group, we really preferred getting together in the same place. We not only had the talks, but we also used to hang out in a quiet bar afterward. Meeting and discussing different projects was really important for us. If we don’t have that, then the meetings are not very attractive for many people. During the online meeting in January, very few people attended and there were no questions. We uploaded the talk to our YouTube channel and many people watched the talk afterward. But the meeting itself was much less interactive, and it felt a bit isolating.
We are looking forward to the pandemic getting settled so that we can start with physical meetings again.
In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? For example, did you use GitHub, videoconferencing, online discussion groups more? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive of people that cannot attend physical events in the future?
Before the pandemic, for years we already recorded our talks and uploaded them to our YouTube channel. So people who couldn’t come to the meetings could watch the talk and make comments. We also shared the slides on our website and our GitHub.
To keep us all connected, we also created a telegram channel for anyone to join and ask questions. We hope it will keep growing, but so far it’s just starting. And, of course, we have the meetup group where we share announcements and some activities that may interest people, but it’s not a really active communication channel.
So in terms of inclusivity, at the beginning of the term, we always send surveys to our members to decide what’s the best time and day to meet. Normally, it’s on Tuesday or Thursday in the evening. And for those people who can’t come, they can watch it online. And that’s what we have planned. Hopefully, we will keep it a mix of physical and online meetings for people who cannot come. But we are really looking forward to getting together.
I feel that the best thing we can do for the R community in Seville is get together to know each other and share knowledge. And that’s something that is hard to achieve in online-only events, so we are looking forward to hybrid events.
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?
Last week was very interesting for me. It was about KoBotoolbox, which is an open-source software to design data collection forms. It allows you to design the form and send it to people, who can then fill it in from their phones or their computers. In the field or in humanitarian crises, it can make data collection very easy. And then it also allows you to access, visualize and share the data you have collected. I wasn’t familiar with this tool and it was an eye-opening talk for me. I feel it has immense potential and is very useful for people who need to collect data.
Before the pandemic also, we had really great talks. As an academic, I have learned a lot about big data and innovative machine learning stuff from people working in the private sector.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
I am not really an expert, but I think all the visualization stuff is very attractive to many people. And there is continuous progress in visualization in R, so I think that’s going to be a powerful characteristic of R. I also think that the rmarkdown ecosystem is powerful, and it fascinates many people.
And then maybe a bit more niche. The spatial stuff in R is something I use a lot, and I feel there is a lot of interest in that. The capabilities to do geospatial stuff with R have kept growing over the last ten years and that’s amazing.
Another thing I have noticed in our group is that when people do advanced machine learning, they move to Python. I really hope that we can change the perception that it is not possible to do advanced machine learning in R. I think that R Studio and others have done some really great work in this direction and R can do advanced machine learning. I wish people doing deep learning and machine learning keep using R and keep teaching it to us in our meetings. That’s a thing I would like to see in the next year or a few years.
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 don’t know any data journalists in our group, but we have marvelous examples of data journalism here in Spain. It’s really recent, there are many journalists doing impressive data work now and there is a lot of interest. Many universities are offering Masters in Data Journalism.
With COVID, there has been amazing work by many newspapers and journalists. I have seen amazing reports regarding COVID, visualizing it, and explaining it to the public. A project that I like is DataDista. They have developed a few projects investigating topics like the problem of water management in Spain, which is a huge issue in the South of Spain. They are investigating the problem of illegal extraction of underground water and have published an impressive report on the work. And as far as I know, they use R for their research and visualization. There is a lot of data collected on COVID. They collect all the data from official reports and publish it in a public GitHub repo every day. They have also worked on the problem of macro-farms. These vast farms with thousands of animals pose serious environmental problems. So they are an amazing example of data journalism. There are many examples in Spain, and it’s a thriving community.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
R Consortium has funded a few projects related to spatial capabilities in R, like SF or STARS, and also the R interface to Google Earth Engine. So I believe that support from the R-Consortium has been critical to making R a powerful ecosystem for spatial analysis. There has been enormous progress and it has attracted many people to the R ecosystem.
And then one project that I really like is the R Ladies. I think it is amazing, and it is something very characteristic of the R community. It has been amazing and there has been a lot of activity with R Ladies’ groups around the globe. So I guess the R Consortium’s support has also been important there to grow this momentum.
Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
From what I have seen from the outside, I have enjoyed R/Medicine activities and also R in Pharma. Both have organized really interesting meetings, with lots of exciting talks and workshops. Even though I haven’t attended their events, I keep an eye on them and I am amazed by what they have done.
When is your next event? Please give details!
We are planning a physical meeting around May. If we still cannot meet in a room, then we will probably have something online.
We do struggle to find speakers for our events. We know that there are thousands of people using R every day, but it’s very difficult to get them to come to our meetings and speak. Many of them feel they don’t know enough. We try to encourage people to speak, regardless of the level. We don’t need to have only advanced topics, we can also have really basic topics.
Running this group is a pleasure and the only struggle has been finding volunteers to give talks. I would love to know tricks to fix this. From other R groups, we have learned that you need to approach speakers individually, instead of a general call for speakers. You need to know your community, the people, and what they are doing. Then you need to approach them individually and invite them personally to come.
Luckily we have a couple of people that agreed to give a talk in the future. So we will probably have something this spring about crime investigation and mapping with R. We have an expert on that here in Seville and he agreed to talk. We would like to have one talk every two months if possible or at least once per quarter. We used to have one per month but we struggle to have speakers so we space them a bit more.