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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.

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.