useR! 2008: Officially started

The offfical program of the useR! 2008 conference in Dortmund, Germany has started. After some opening words by the director of the faculty (who stressed that more than 400 participants from 38 countries were present), the word was to the chair of the program committee. He introduced the program of the conference, which basically consists of three parts: invited lectures, kaleidoscope sessions, and Focus sessions.

The invited lectures are given by prominent members of the R community, and focus on both the history and future development of R-Project. The kaleidoscope sessions are intended to give an overview of application of R in different fields of research, whereas the focus sessions focus on topics of special interest.

John Fox

Then, the floor was to John Fox, who talked about the social organization of the R-Project. He contrasted the commonly stated question why people would work on R-Project, if they do not get paid by it, which the point of view that ”participation in voluntary associations is a norma social activity”. Thereby, he contrasted the economic perspective with a sociological one, in which people appeared to be habituated to cooperation and held high an academic type of motivation.

Nevertheless, R-Project stands out for it has no strong, central leadership. The number of people that had direct write access presently is 19. Decisions are made in a democratic fashion, but the person doing the most work gets the most votes. Nevertheless, with the enormous growth of R-Project since its initial development in 1990, division of labour has become semi-formal. The mode of cooperation changed from direct collaboration between two persons, to ‘role enactment’. Planning changed from none, to partial. Whereas the initial goal was personal development, is changed to the reproduction of the functionality provided by S, to various and partly conflicting goals.

Why did R-Project succeed? Prime reason for this is identified by John Fox the opening up of the project by the initial developers. Furthermore, he argues that the Core Groups is immensely talented, and much of the necessary software beyond the basic R system was already available in S libraries. More in general, the package system allowed large numbers of users / developers to participate to the project. Furthermore, R runs on a wide number of computer platform, and of course it is free. In both senses, that is.

But there are some possible threats to the continuation of R-project. For instance, the decision-making procedures of R-Core were possible better suited to the inital development of R-Project. Due to this, no general plan for future development exists, and important decisions tend not to be made. Also there is always the risk of possible over-dependence on a few key individuals.

Nevertheless, the growth and user based of R-Project remains strong and shows a lot of potential for future development. To this can be added the strong motivation not to let commercial software developers take over (academic) statistical analysis.

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