Why did you decide to learn R?
In 2012, I convinced the editors in parent company of my newspaper to hire me as a data journalist. There was no roadmap in NZ newsrooms, as I was the first hire. I was ardently following the New York Times graphics work and discovered they used R. That’s how I decided to learn R.
It was amusing that a programming language developed at the University of Auckland wasn’t known in NZ newsrooms. But the fact that there was a local community available via Twitter played a part in the decision as well. I remember one of my earliest interactions on Twitter was looking at Luis Apiolaza’s analysis of NZ school data using R.
How easy or difficult was learning R?
I found the interactive data analysis alluring, but pre-tidyverse the challenge was having a coherent learning model. In hindsight, everything appears easy once you have learnt it. I was learning without structure and resources most helpful at the time included StackOverflow. The growth in the amount of material available to learn has been astonishing. I greatly admire Tidy Tuesday screencasts from David Robinson. The two resources that caused the biggest shift were R for Data Science and Advanced R.
In what ways has learning changed your work?
Working in visualisation, one of the hardest things is figuring out the audience questions. R has helped me greatly in developing quick prototypes, visualising data quickly to test with the audience. As a journalist, it meant sharing work early with sources and other journalists I collaborated with. For example, if I was developing a crime visualisation, at the same time I was providing few hundred static plots to journalists to understand the data.
The most significant change has been how I think about data analysis. R is my first language for data inquiry. I found value in automating and recording tasks which others might do in Excel. Lately, the combination of developing simple data pipelines and RMarkdown is allowing me to unlock value in a more corporate environment.
What do you think people considering learning R might not appreciate about it?
Firstly, the value of community. Learning is a social act, it is easy to draw value from a community which takes such joy in sharing.
As a beginner, it’s worthwhile to know that it doesn’t take long for R to make a significant impact on your work. As an intermediate user, the surprising thing is how much you keep unlocking as you spend more time writing and thinking about your code.