IMPRESSIONS FROM useR! 2021

The useR! conference took place as a global online conference and we are eager to share some impressions.

useR!2021 marmot

This year’s useR! conference was quite different from those in the past due to its virtual and global design: its schedule was almost 24/7 and organized to fit three different time zones (some introductory events occurred three times for this reason). This is just one example showing how the organizers cared about inclusiveness and accessibility (e.g. there were guidelines to help write slides that can be read easily by people with impairments like color blindness). While this made it difficult to attend every session slot, it made more than up for it due to the amount of sessions and talks, which covered various topics from academic and statistical, to more technical with the usual addition of internal topics related to the R community and outreach. So content-wise, the 2021 edition of the useR! conference was pretty similar to earlier ones.

The format was similar to the past, with keynotes, tutorials, regular talks and a slightly different format for lightning talks (they weren’t really talks, but more like technical notes or pre-recorded videos and reminded of poster sessions).

Unfortunately, the “Lounge” tool that the organizers wanted to use bugged out before the conference and the replacement solution “slack” seemed to have been set up somewhat hurried. As far as we know, solutions were found in time for all the talks and events, but there was definitely some confusion and occasionally people missed (part of) something they wanted to attend.

Miraier Peter went to some sessions and liked especially some of the talks about new(er) packages:

  • riskmetric is a package to help assess other R packages using several metrics to quantify their robustness.
  • reactor is a package intended to help investigate and unit test issues related to reactivity in Shiny applications and looked quite promising (we must still try it out).
  • ShinyQuickStarter is an RStudio add-in that allows creating an initial Shiny dashboard (without any internal logic) through a GUI and using drag-and-drop, and seemed very cool and fast to initialize the look of new Shiny apps.
  • autotest is another package designed to help test your R package. It will mutate inputs to stress test a given R package more than usual and contains some more elaborate tests going beyond the common testthat + R CMD tests.
  • fusen is a package that provides a nice way to start prototyping something in an Rmd file that can afterwards be turned into a proper R package, i.e. all is together in one file and following some conventions, contents will end up in DESCRIPTION, R/ and other relevant places.

Miraier Francesca organized a panel discussion with prominent guests of various backgrounds that came together to discuss the difference between an R user and an R developer and their role in the job market. The discussion showed that people have a variety of opinions on these terms and that they effectively mean very different things depending on the context. It was very interesting to hear from the panelists especially about the implications for people interested in pursuing a career where an R skill-set is required.

Miraier Riccardo presented a regular talk about a streamlined process for collecting community contributions in a gallery website and Miraier Peter presented a technical note about GitHub Actions and our techguides, see also our previous post.

Overall, the conference was a success and received praise in the slack channels, but networking was unfortunately not very well promoted, which is mostly due to the online nature of the event. While these online formats help us stay safe during the pandemic and are more inclusive for those who can’t afford to travel due to monetary or time reasons, it does feel like something is missing without the option to socialize with people in person and there is still room for improvement from the technical side. Either way, we’re looking forward to the next useR! conference!