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R is Not Just for Big Data

David Keyes David Keyes
March 26th, 2020

“Oh yeah, I thought about learning R, but my data isn’t that big so it’s not worth it.” 

I've heard that line more times than I can count. There is a common perception among non-R users that R is only worth learning if you work with "big data."

It's not a totally crazy idea. R is a common tool among people who work with big data. But just because those who work with big data use R does not mean that R is not valuable for the rest of us.

I rarely work with datasets larger than a few hundred observations. So what benefits do I get from using R over Excel, SPSS, SAS, Stata, or any other tool? Here are a few.

RMarkdown Makes Report Writing (and Updating) a Breeze

I’ve become convinced that the single greatest benefit of R is RMarkdown. This incredible tool enables you to go from data import to final report, all within R. Here’s how I’ve described the benefits of RMarkdown:

No longer do you do your data wrangling and analysis in SPSS, your data visualization work in Excel, and your reporting writing in Word — now you do it all in RMarkdown. This lowers the likelihood of errors created in switching between these tools (something we may be loath to admit we’ve done, but, really, who hasn’t?).

In addition to avoiding errors, you also get the benefit of constantly updated reports. When you get new data, you don’t need to manually rerun your SPSS analysis, Excel visualizations, and Word report writing — you just rerun the code in your RMarkdown document and you get a new report, as this video vividly demonstrates.

Generate 100 Reports as Easily as You Generate One Report

RMarkdown has many other benefits, including parameterized reporting. A client of mine recently had to produce nearly 100 reports, one for each site of an after school program they were evaluating. Doing this the SPSS-Excel-Word route would take dozens (hundreds?) of hours. I showed them how, with RMarkdown, you can create a template and then automatically generate one report for each site, something which converted a skeptical staff member to R.

Make Your Reports Look Beautiful

Over the last few weeks, I've been developing a custom RMarkdown template for a client. Now, when they create reports in RMarkdown, they all have a consistent look and feel.

If you've ever tried to get people to adhere to a consistent style, you know what a challenge it can be. Using this approach, it makes it simple for everyone to adhere to an organizational style without any extra effort.

Access Your Software Even When You're Working From Home

The ongoing Coronavirus outbreak has forced many people to work from home. It's presented many challenges, but, if you use R, having access to your software is not one of them, as one of my clients recently discovered.

Much of the data that this client works with is not “big.” They work with the types of data that I work with: surveys of a few hundred people max. But, being able to access the tools they need to work with their data sure comes in handy at a time when their whole staff is working remotely.

Big data, little data, in-between data — the size of your data isn’t what matters. Being able to access a free tool no matter where you are and being able to quickly and efficiently work with your data — that’s the best reason to learn R.

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