R consortium had a discussion with Asimbongeni Dhlodhlo, one of the key leaders spearheading the ZimR UseRs group in Zimbabwe. He talks on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them as a community and how they are dealing with the current global crisis. Being a community dominated by students, R is gaining popularity in the country especially after the introduction of a degree in data science by some universities. Asimbongeni also has an interesting take on seeing R running on serverless environments.
What is the R community like in your country?
The R community in Zimbabwe is young, driven by demand for workers with programming skills. Our members are people who have a background in computer programming. Recently, there has been an introduction of data science degrees in three universities in the country. Five years ago, we did not have data science as a degree in Zimbabwe. R is being used in these universities as part of their core curriculum which has brought an increase in R members in the group.
Also, Zimbabwe is facing a serious unemployment problem, but NGOs are growing. These NGOs normally come with their own standards such as the kind of software to be used, which has caused an upward trend in the use of R. R is being used by NGOs for data cleaning, analysis and visualization. The largest group making up the R community in Zimbabwe are students from universities, not people in business.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
It has been a horrible time for us. Here in Zimbabwe we had an early lockdown, even when the numbers for COVID cases were quite low. This really affected us from meeting physically. The numbers are low even now but our borders still remain closed.
We haven’t had a lot of events on just R. What we have done is to partner with the data science community which is bigger than ours, including a Python one that is popular. Whenever there is a Python Zimbabwe or data science event, we are always part of it, but that was like 2-3 years ago. We have tried using virtual meetings however, internet connectivity has been an issue of major concern. Most of our users being students, we cannot do a long meeting because the majority may not afford the internet costs. We have been using WhatsApp as a discussion board where people ask questions, help with challenges. But it’s been a horrible time.
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 been using virtual meetings, but did not get good numbers and the numbers drop quickly during virtual meetings. The maximum we can do is 2 hours, beyond that the numbers start falling.
The main platform we are using right now is WhatsApp, but then it has limits on the number of people. We have never used GitHub. WhatsApp is the only tool we are using to connect, but I doubt that we can continue using it moving forward. People get excited when there is a physical conference; they want to meet, interact, and travel to different locations. They really enjoy that. Unfortunately, we cannot replicate that virtually.
For us, the ideal thing is to meet physically. I’m just hoping this whole COVID crisis goes away.
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 Kundai Gwatidzo who did an analysis on tracking the number of burials during COVID. He used Sentinel satellite imagery to track graves. On the satellite image there is a shadow that shows when there is a grave that has been dug. He went ahead to analyze that and then used a classification algorithm that tracks the shadows and produces a count for a specific cemetery in the past week. Using this, we were able to have a weekly count of graves, if there are no clouds. This particular presentation was a “wow” moment for us as a community.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
People have always enjoyed R since it is easier to learn than other languages. The learning curve allows people to jump on fast. What’s more interesting for me in the future is to see R being used in serverless environments like Docker plus other serveless platforms. There has been a lot of work that has been done to make R easier using packages, such as Machine Learning packages and R MarkDown.
R has always been strong in visualization, ggplots is one of the best packages out there. It makes creating graphs a beautiful thing to do.
When is your next event? Please give details!
The plan was to have an event in February. We are hoping that it will be a physical event because here the policy is that if you are vaccinated you are allowed to meet physically. However, with the Omicron variant, it’s unclear. We are keeping our fingers crossed.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
For me the one that stands out is the Google Earth Engine (GEE) with R project since it is trying to link R to the Google Earth Engine. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is data intensive and it requires a lot of computation power. If that comes together by leveraging Google’s computation power, it would be an exciting project to watch.