When you think of data science and programming, you probably don’t think of art. You probably won’t imagine the functions of your code as cute, fuzzy monsters, or colorful gems of your information. But Dr. Allison Horst does.
If you’ve been thinking about learning R before, you have a good chance of knowing Allison’s work. He is an assistant professor of data technology, statistics and scientific communication at the Bren School of Environmental Sciences and Management at UC Santa Barbara, but he is also a resident artist at RStudio, where he makes such drawings:
(These pictures are Allisonin Github, otherwise, where they and many others are available under the CC4.0 license).
If you look at these cute fuzzballs, smile on your face for a moment, well, that’s the thing. Allison’s R art has a very specific purpose and strongly reflects something special about the R community.
Bringing art into computer science
Allison’s academic background is in engineering and environmental science – she completed her doctorate how nanoparticles interact with bacteria – but he also has a history of art.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve been making art,” he says, “and I have an artistic background as a plein air landscape painter. I just loved going out in nature and painting what I see.”
“When I started teaching, I noticed that when I look at many other fields like ecology and marine science, they would have these beautiful pictures of them working in the field and really cool drawings of the organisms they worked with.”
“In the meantime, while I was teaching data science, I was trying to make interesting slides that represent data science and statistics, and I wasn’t excited about what I found.”
“At one point, I realized I was trying to teach a class and introduced the mutate function
dplyr, “he says.” And behind me was a screenshot of the package’s R-documentation. “
“I thought: this is a serious contradiction! I’m up here like, ‘This is so cool! The mutate is awesome, look at these great things you could do!’ And then on the screen behind me is just this dense text with arguments they don’t understand. “
This is how he started making R illustrations. “I thought, ‘There has to be better visual entrances when students get to know the function for the first time.’ “”
“I really wanted the students’ first impression of the activity to be hospitable and colorful. They do a lot of hard stuff with it later. But I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if their first impression and interaction was something that really invited and interested? “
Although the long-term effects of fuzzy R-signs on data science learning have not been assessed, Allison says he has definitely noticed the difference. “When I present something [now], I put the slide up in the background [with those characters] and then there’s the classroom where students smile and laugh, ”he says.
“For me, it’s best. People get to know something about coding, maybe for the first time, and they smile about it.”
Years later, it still drives him to turn R-functions into cute, fuzzy creatures. “Everything is towards the goal of trying to make R and data science in general more approachable, inviting and interesting to different learners.”
Join the #rstats community and RSudio
At first, however, Allison’s pictures were definitely for her classroom students. “I had been opposed to joining Twitter for years and years,” Allison says, “until I worked on art Open the scenery and my dear friend and mighty marine scientist, Dr. Julia Lowndes, finally convinced me [to share some art there]. “
“I think the first one I shared may have been dplyr Wrangler. And the community response was so positive and so supportive that it made me want to do more art.”
“I have received so much from the community, not only from what I have learned about arts and computing skills, but also from encouragement to make a creative contribution. I started creating more, still focusing on creating works of art for grad students, but it seemed there was a wider audience . “
In 2018, when Allison was a residency artist National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, RStudio asked him to commission work for the Birds of a Feather sessions at the 2019 RStudio conference. This collaboration turned into several, and ultimately an artist’s residence at RStudio.
“I had a conversation with Hadley [Wickham] about what I would like to do, which was mostly still sharing works of art in ways that lower barriers to learning and welcome more R-users, ”he says.
“Since then, I’ve only done works of art for education and information, and just because I think it’s fun for people […] I’ve been happily an artist in the residence with RStudio since last fall and I’ve been really excited to be a partner with them. “
The R community and the importance of inclusion
If you search the job listings of most computing companies, you probably won’t find a “resident artist” status. So why is RStudio different?
“RStudio is so ranked and has shown that they value the kindness, receptivity and support of different learners,” Allison says. “I think supporting a work of art that affects it is one of the many ways they do it as part of a broad effort to make the community more inclusive.”
Inclusion is a value that is visible throughout the R-community. It’s something you can see simply by browsing the #rstats hashtag on Twitter. Part of the reason for that, according to Allison, is good leadership: “I think it’s pretty amazing to see the values that are visible and verbal at the top of the people.”
“The visibility of these values and priorities from R-community leaders – RStudio leaders and other groups – encourages other people to know that these are things that this community values.”
These values are deep throughout the R-community. This is evident from influential, inclusive and diversity – focused organizations such as Ladies, R-forward, Minority R users, Africa R users, Latin R and much more.
“One of the biggest reasons why I think the R-community feels so inclusive is because of RLadies,” Allison says. “And I’m really excited to see other initiatives begin Minority R users, which launches Dorris Scott and Danielle Smalls-Perkins. and makes the community more diverse and inclusive. “
(We recently spoke with Shelmith Kariuk, one of the leaders in R-users in Africa – click here to read the interview.)
Advice for new R-students
With years of experience teaching R, Allison also has ideas on how new R learners can help themselves achieve their goals.
His first clue should come as no surprise: “Join the community early. It is a good source of support and encouragement and sharing new tools. “
“It can feel scary,” he says, “Because you’re like,‘ I don’t know any of these people! “I think new users would be amazed at how supportive the R community is, especially on Twitter, but also at conferences and R-Ladies.”
“This is true for users and learners at all levels. Everyone is just psychic about wanting to learn R and join this community. I wish I could have convinced myself years ago of how important and motivating it would be. “
Second, he says, is to take advantage of the amazing free resources that the R community offers. “The community is also really committed to open access to many learning materials,” he says. “It includes video courses and books accounting, R for the online science education communityand guides and blog posts. “
“I think I’ve learned more new skills from blog posts than any other learning method because I’ve used R,” he says, “so consider the unconventional and amazing resources and tutorials that people create and share freely in the R community all the time. “
Another piece of advice? “Don’t feel like you have to do a massive project every time to learn something,” Allison says. “Try one new feature every week. Participate Neat Tuesdays. Do a little low-stakes things very often. I think it’s the best way to start feeling comfortable. “
It’s an approach he takes in his own classroom, he says. “I’ve been trying to push my tasks this way by moving toward high frequency, lower stakes, high variability, small tasks to build more skills and create repeatability.”
“I think replay is really valuable to learners.”
Allison also encourages new learners to try things out and share their work online, even if the tried ones don’t work. “I love seeing people post imperfect things,” he says. “It’s not a competition. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The thing is, you tried something, practiced and then shared it with people. It’s a cool Tuesday spirit.”
He also had some advice for people who hoped to move into a computing career: take on pre-existing subject knowledge and combine it with your knowledge skills. “This combination is really powerful,” he says. “When you have domain expertise, you can say,‘ Not only do I have domain expertise, but on top of that, I have the skills I need to answer questions in this area. “
“It’s really awesome that someone can come in and be like,‘ I can do all this data analysis, but I also understand enough to be able to do it responsibly and communicate with different stakeholders. “