R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups around the world organize, share information and support each other. The wealth of knowledge in the community and the drive to learn and improve is inspiring. We had a chance to talk with Muriel Buri, Statistical Scientist and organizer of Zurich R User Meetup, to find out more about the R community in Zurich, how they’re holding up during the pandemic, trends in R, and what the future holds.
If you are interested in applying to the RUGS program for your organization, see the How do I Join? section at the end of this article.
RC: What is the R Community like in Zurich?
We started with the RUG in 2015 and by now we have just 2000 members. However, looking at Switzerland, there are smaller communities based in Lucerne and Bern and there is one R-Ladies group in Lausanne, which’s the French part of Switzerland. They all are a bit smaller, however, it’s a nice exchange between the groups and as you might be aware, the Zurich team is very much involved in organizing the Global User R Conference.
Zooming back in on the R community in Zurich, it’s a very diverse community. As mentioned, the Zurich RUG was founded in December 2015 and has been growing substantially since. The frequently organized Meetup events regularly gather a crowd of over 100 people and foster a very lively and intensive exchange among the R community in the Zurich region. The diversity regarding the applications of R, as well as the different occupations of the useRs in the community, such as data journalism, academic research, different insurances, official statistics, foundations, etc. are unique and outstanding characteristics of the Zurich R community.
The diversity is also what I enjoy the most at all these meetings. Not just having an exchange between the group you usually interact with, but having a broader exchange with different people, professions, levels of useRs, application fields, etc. To summarize, the community is very inclusive, and there is no such thing like a stupid question.
RC: How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
The Zurich RUG has shifted its focus a bit as many of the RUG members are now actively involved in the virtual global useR! 2021 conference. This has already started when we originally applied for the (planned) in-person useR! 2021 which has by now became the global virtual useR! 2021 conference. Hence, for me, it is challenging to distinguish between how COVID has affected us and how our engagement in the organisation of the useR! 2021 has affected our local activities.
At the start of the pandemic, we did not organise anything. After two or three months into the ‘lockdown’ (which in Switzerland was quite soft in comparison to other countries), the small group of the RUG Zurich organizers met in a park for lunch. At that time, I do recall that we all were a bit Zoom-fatigued. We then waited for a while and organised our first virtual event in October 2020. It was nice and many people attended it. However, what we always enjoyed best was having the beer part afterwards. Having this all virtual just wasn’t the same. It is very difficult to get that socializing part going in a virtual space.
Luckily, the Swiss R community is still active thanks to the Lucerne useR! group (@lucerne_r) which have actually started during the pandemic. They nicely promote their online events on Twitter, and we’d always retweet these tweets for our own community. It is nice to see that the community isn’t asleep.
RC: Can virtual technologies be used to make us more inclusive?
I personally do believe that virtual technologies do have the power to make us more inclusive, yes. As an example, the useR! 2021 conference will be the first R conference that is global by design, both in audience and leadership. Leveraging a diversity of experiences and backgrounds helps us to make the conference accessible and inclusive in as many ways as possible and to grow the global community of R users giving new talents access to this amazing ecosystem. New technologies make the conference more accessible to minoritized individuals and we strive to leverage that potential. Additionally, we pay special attention to the needs of people with a disability to ensure that they can attend and contribute to the conference as conveniently as possible.
That being said, we will surely do our best to use these innovations also later within our own Zurich based community.
RC: 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?
There is no specific presentation that I would like to highlight. To me it seems our audience always appreciates events with learning tutorials very much.
For example, we once had a presentation on Docker for R users. Another time, we were able to encourage Martin Mächler to give a talk. That was also really great. His presentation was entitled “What I find important in R programming and recent cool features in R.”
The way we often organize our meetups is that we will have one specific topic and two speakers presenting. As mentioned, the R community in Zurich is very heterogeneous so that we would for example have a financial theme for one meetup and would then look for a bank to sponsor and/or host our event. Or we’d have an insurance related topic and try to organise this event at an insurance company.
RC: What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
In the age of this pandemic, virtual meetups have become an indispensable tool for the community. Based on this, I was wondering if the local R community groups will still be as important as they used to be. It seems to me that the community is moving closer globally and even more (virtual) exchange is happening.
The question of predicting a specific trend in R language affecting our organization over the next year is challenging. From my personal perspective, as I now work in the pharma industry, I see a big trend moving away from SAS towards R. With this, the promotion of friendly end-user Shiny Apps to present and discuss data analyses to people who are less familiar with the concepts is a big trend too.
RC: 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?
Yes, indeed, there are at least two members at Zurich RUG, Timo Grossenbacher (@grssnbchr) and Marie-José Kolly (@mjKolly). They have both presented their work at our meetups and the community has been very interested in their talks.
Marie-José writes data journalism articles for the Republik magazine in Zurich. One of her articles is about the protection of unborn life and the woman’s right to self-determination. The article allows for a visual journey through the weeks of pregnancy. The article is also nominated for the Swiss Press Award and can be accessed here (paywall, in German).
RC: Of the funded projects on R Consortium, what is your favorite project and why?
To be honest, I wasn’t aware that there are so many different funded projects on R Consortium. What a great effort!
The satRday conferences are events that I enjoy very much. The support of the R-Ladies groups is surely also a project that I personally like a lot.
RC: 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?
That is a challenging question. I worked myself in Uganda and taught statistics to veterinary medical doctors. R as an open-source program for statistical computing is fantastic as everyone with internet access can make use of it. I think I would personally promote more such projects to promote the growth of the global community of R users by advancing its accessible and inclusiveness. I’d initiate a project that promotes the global use of R. This vision is motivated by my experience of seeking sponsors for the global useR! 2021 conference. We did experience some challenges to gain access to all global communities, e.g. R is used in so many parts of the world but not everyone yet might be aware of the great resources, the worldwide community and the global exchange… Yes, I would suggest a project that pursues this vision.
How do I Join?
R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups around the world organize, share information and support each other. We have given grants over the past 4 years, encompassing over 65,000 members in 35 countries. We would like to include you! Cash grants and meetup.com accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!