SQLSaturdays but for R?

UPDATE: Proposal now being developed after fantastic community support. Check out satRdays on GitHub and contribute your opinions!

I had a contact from a very nice chap in Dallas a month ago about whether in the R world we do anything like SQLSaturdays.

The great thing about the SQLSaturdays he said was not that they’re free (well it helps!) but that they’re on his time. Developing his skills was something he couldn’t get signed off by his boss so he wanted to be able to do it by himself.

In answer to the question of whether there are local(ish) weekend conferences happening regularly for R, my answer was “not really” and it’s a shame because the R community is fantastic. I started thinking about why we don’t have them and what would be needed to change that.

Free / cheap regional small-medium conferences are a must for growing user knowledge and speakers in R.

What are SQLSaturdays?

SQLSaturdays are free, SQL Server related conferences held around the world. The SQLSaturdays focus on developing technical knowledge and skill with talks at a range of levels. The first SQLSaturday was in 2007, and in 2015 it’ll have grown to 115 events across the globe. That’s a fantastic achievement, especially as we’re generally seeing the SQL events expand into Business Intelligence and Analytics.

They’re run by local communities to grow support and attendance for their user groups, but they’re supported globally by PASS who provide the brand, the amazingly helpful Karla, and the digital infrastructure needed.

Who are PASS?

PASS was set up in 1999 by Microsoft and CA Technologies to help promote and educate users of SQL Server around the world. PASS run the PASS Summit, a much larger paid-for conference that acts as a fund-raising vehicle for the support of PASS’ infrastructure, SQLSaturdays, and the Virtual Chapters. The way PASS operate the events to help grow the user base and the quality of knowledge within the SQL community, provide a great example that the new R Consortium could learn from – especially given Microsoft are key partners of the group. PASS operate with some salaried employees but for the most part this massive organisation is staffed with volunteers – it’s not perfect but they do a great of supporting learning and the community.

What’s the problem for doing them for R?

If they’re so awesome, why aren’t we already doing them? There are a few main reasons:

  • There’s been not been a central association / organisation with this in their remit
  • The user base for R is much smaller than SQL Server was, even back in 2007, let alone today
  • A corollary of fewer users is that there are fewer speakers. This makes it harder to get 5 to 10 good quality speakers for a conference in Cardiff or Albuquerque for instance
  • The academic roots of R means that almost R conferences happen during the week* and potentially there could be a lot of pushback to weekend events
  • There may not be enough companies deriving benefits from the R language and who are willing to pay to grow the user base and brand awareness

What it would take to get them going for R?

In terms of what it would take to do these, the answer is “not much”. Doing a minimal replication would entail:

  1. A group of people who can produce a central platform
  2. Some pilot user groups out there willing to organise a conference
  3. A few good sponsors who can support the first conferences
  4. A group of people willing to travel to speak and/or attend
  5. A dab hand at graphic design to come up with a neat logo

What next?

I think R Saturdays could be a great way to make R more accessible. Community events don’t happen because of just one person though, it can literally be a cast of thousands when you include the attendees, so more folks are required to make it happen – so we’ll need some willing people to help tackle this.

It’s theoretically within the remit of the R Consortium to provide a central platform for these events. It’d additionally support the big useR! conferences too, so this could be an excellent proposal to put in front in of the Infrastructure Committee. I raised it at the Panel Discussion at EARL 2015 Boston and the Consortium are keen.

I intend to submit a proposal, but before I do, I’d really love to have some discussion on the concept and potential pitfalls people might see. Please either discuss below or tweet with #RSaturday to @theStephLocke.

 * I'm aware there's some "Citation Required" - if you have evidence to the contrary, please give a heads up!