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DataFest Tbilisi talks about AI, the need for people, and setting up teaching programs

By Blog, Events

R consortium talks to Nino Macharashvili of DataFest Tbilisi (also on Facebook) on how they are dealing with life in the COVID age. As they were one of the early adopters of online conferences, having one shortly after the start of COVID, they have an interesting take on attendance. Nino also has an interesting take on a top-level project to help train more future professionals into the R language.

What is the R community like in Tbilisi?

Our event is very regional. We started DataFest Tbilisi in 2017, and it was mostly an Eastern European Union (EU) and Central Asian event. Our speakers were always from all over (North America, EU, and Asia). In the last two years, we have been online due to COVID, and our event has become more global, with more than 50 countries attending. However, we still had the biggest chunk from Eastern EU and Central Asia. Because of our location, we tend to have a manageable time zone for a global conference, with only a few people waking up early or staying up late.

How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?

With the virus, we had to have everything go online. We were able to start experimenting with different ways to run a conference online. In the first year, for the first 2 months, we noticed that there were hardly any online events. Come March we noticed that many different events were going online. We started going in right away and ended up pioneering online conferences. We got a nice response from the audience for the first conference because we were available when many people were in a strict lockdown. We were able to offer an opportunity to connect with others in the community and learn. For me, it was a very positive experience. We wanted to be a global conference, not just for speakers but also for the audience. It was much easier to do this with online events. However, after 1 year we saw some differences, Georgia and most of the EU were going back to normal. We also noticed people didn’t want to go back on zoom due to zoom fatigue. I’d personally like to keep the conference offline, online, and hybrid.

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 ended up using Zoom and a slack channel. We did look at using hopin, but we decided that simpler was for the best. So we decided to keep with the technology that most people were used to.

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? 

My favorite presentation was on Artificial Intelligence (AI) from our recent meeting. One striking fact was how the EU is racing to catch up with the US in AI and are investing heavily in it. The US is ahead, and the EU is close behind, but Georgia needs to catch up. I like it because it was a talk that brought up the issues and obstacles of AI and not just the overhyped part of AI.

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

R is not the only language that is used by our members. As far as trends in coding in general, we are looking at tools that do coding themselves (self-coding code). We still need people who know how to use it and why to use it, however. We need to interest people from other sectors so we can show people how to apply the code to their field.

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 usually have data journalism as a track event. One of the main goals is to use data to debunk misinformation. This is one of our current projects. We have so many different projects. One of my favorite talks was a talk on COVID-19 in Brazil.

When is your next event? Please give details!

Our annual event is scheduled for 7-11 December 2021. We are planning to have it in hybrid format. 

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

R ladies is an important program that should be kept. The R Ladies’ role is very important in popularizing R among everyone and not just in bringing in women. By making R more approachable, it increases interest in many different groups, and R Ladies has shown us that. It is important in communities like ours, where the R community is not large. It has the power to unify the groups.

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

I don’t have a favorite active working group.

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?

While I think R in data visualization would be a great choice, but I’m a bit biased because that is my field. However, what would be better for my area would be to provide support to start teaching R in University programs. In Georgia, there are not many people who use R. Most people learn about it from Twitter and start using it there. Some people start learning at workshops, and it slowly starts to trickle into the professional world. However, some professors are set in their ways and the software that they use. So, having support to get professors into using R and competitions for students would be very helpful. Their students will be the new professionals of the future and will push R in their jobs.