Happy 20th BiRthday, R!
If you’re kind enough to follow my blogposts, watch my YouTube videos or attend any of my presentations, you’ll be very familiar with my belief that data-driven success in any organisation is two-thirds due to people and processes, and only a third due to technology. Am I being unduly hard on the technology?
A poor worker, it is said, always blames their tools, and if that’s accurate, then we must surely also credit the tools when the workers get it right. Today seems like an appropriate day to shine the spotlight on one of those tools: the R language, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary!
I guess any milestone anniversary forces you to take a moment to reflect on a journey that has taken place, but this anniversary is particularly close to our hearts as it’s the language that Mango was really built upon back in 2002. With less than 10 employees three years later, we offered our first R consultancy project and we did – and still do – play an active role in the R community, hosting meetup groups and events around the world to nurture talent and promote the latest innovations. Indeed, Mango was a founding member of The R Consortium, a group which aims to offer support to key organisations and groups developing, maintaining, distributing and using R software.
One of the events we organise is the annual EARL Conference in London, an event dedicated to the commercial use of the R language. Every year it’s awe-inspiring to see the breadth and calibre of presentations go up and up, along with the attendee numbers. I believe this year we are expecting 400+ attendees and 64 presentations from all sectors, as some of the world’s leading practitioners share their projects, ideas and solutions with the audience. My favourite part of this conference is learning how data scientists are using R to make other people’s lives better, whether that be in medical research, social care, improving transportation or even aiding the peace process in Colombia. Heady stuff.
Originally conceived as an idea in 1992 by Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman in Auckland, New Zealand, its name, R, comes from the first names of the authors, as well as being a nod towards S, the language that preceded R.
It’s easy to see how the language has grown in popularity to supporting over 2 million users today:
- It’s free to use; a compelling proposition when you consider costly alternative proprietary software licenses
- Advanced Analytics: Because of R’s architecture and licensing the very latest algorithms from research are readily available. This makes R an ever-evolving language which encapsulates the most modern statistical techniques and practices.
- High-quality reporting: The ease at which high-quality graphics and interactive web applications can be created and written to a multitude of devices has seen R set the standard for graphical analytics. Tools such as R Markdown allow users to weave together narrative text and code to produce elegantly formatted reports.
- Easy to integrate and extend: Many business intelligence systems and statistical reporting platforms now offer R connectivity as part of their extended offering; it links easily to various data sources and other programming languages enabling users to make use of additional algorithms and power up their statistical capabilities.
But perhaps one of the key drivers in the success of the R Language is that it came along at exactly the right time. In the last 20 years organisations have been looking to use data and advanced analytics to generate value and change, and R’s openness together with its incredible community has really been around at the right time to enable that. It has enabled the data science movement to gather momentum, breaking new ground at the same time by driving things like modern data visualisation thinking and integrating with evolving big data technology.
Perhaps R hasn’t yet come of age, but as I look back over the last twenty years, I feel proud to have been at least a small part of its growth. I can’t wait to hear what more has been achieved with the language at this year’s EARL event and, even as a proud Welshman, if it steers England to win the Six Nations tournament, I’ll certainly give the tool the credit it deserves!
Happy 20th Birthday, R!
Author: Rich Pugh, Chief Data Scientist