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learnR and Phoenix

20 June 2017

Blog Post Author: Mark Kelson, Senior Lecturer in Data Science

As I write this I am on the long journey back to the UK from Namibia, exhausted but satisfied. Last weekend Dave Gillespie, Paul Brennan and I traveled to Windhoek to lead the delivery of a 3-day introductory course on R and it went very well (though I do say so myself). We had 20 delegates from across UNAM.

As is the way with these things, success hinges almost entirely on the enthusiasm and hard work of the delegates. Without that, none of the sessions would have worked. I remember one particularly difficult teaching session a few years back where the inertia in the room prevented me from doing anything more effective than whispering into a gale. Our course, called learnR, was the polar opposite. The delegates were generous, patient and diligent and the course ran like you hope all teaching would. The delegates listened to what we said and also freely shared their knowledge with us. Speaking personally, my coding practice and R knowledge has improved more in the past week than in the previous 6 months.

The undoubted highlight of the week was when our delegates presented their work back to the group. We already knew the depth of experience in the room, but it was fascinating to see the advanced level statistical analyses going on at UNAM. We were given whirlwind tours of time series analyses, package development, and geomapping all in R. In the memorable words of one presenter “R is sexy!”.

At the end of the course the local lead, Dr Pazvakawambwa summarised what she felt the next steps should be and there is now a clear plan for the future. The lingering impression of the research landscape in UNAM is that it requires little outside support in developing R programming capacity. Instead what is in order is a clear strategy for linking existing expertise together and facilitating network development. It will be exciting to see what role the Phoenix project can play as a catalyst in this process.

It has been a thorough privilege to be involved in learnR and the wider Phoenix project. The opportunities for the development of staff on both sides of the equator are obvious. A next obvious step for advancing learnR is to ensure that the fruits of this collaboration resonate throughout Namibia and wider (when I mix a metaphor it stays mixed). I would finally like to thank the entire core Phoenix team (Prof Judith Hall, Ms Nicola Pulman, Ms Catrin Jones) as well as my colleagues in the learnR development team (Dr Pazvakawambwa, Prof Indongo, Dr Gillespie and Dr Brennan).