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Kiwi creation 'R' gets a Covid-fueled boost

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 09 July 2020, 9:29 am
Kiwi creation 'R' gets a Covid-fueled boost

A statistical programming language developed by University of Auckland researchers and used all over the world is growing in popularity as data science is harnessed in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine.

The programming language R, named after its founders Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman, has this month risen to 8th position in the Tiobe Index, which tracks the use of programming languages around the world. R came in with a 2.4 per cent rating on the index, up from 1.6 per cent the previous month. 

That sees R well behind the most popular programming languages such as C, Java, Python and C++, but coming into its own at a time when the world needs it.

"Lots of statistics and data mining need to be done to find a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus," explain the researchers at Tiobe, which is a Dutch software quality testing company founded by former employees of Philips Electronics. 

"As a consequence, statistical programming languages that are easy to learn and use, gain popularity now."

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Speaking the same language

Gentlemen and Ihaka developed R in the early nineties and released it as a free, open-source software package in 1996. 

In 2009, the New York Times profiled the rise of the language and estimated it had 250,000 users worldwide. R was being used then across a wide range of sectors, from setting derivatives pricing in the financial industry to drug development in the pharmaceutical companies. It is particularly popular among data scientists at Google, where it has been used to illuminate patterns in its search engine data.

It's ease of use saw R gain a large following. As the New York Times explained a decade ago:

"Some people familiar with R describe it as a supercharged version of Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet software that can help illuminate data trends more clearly than is possible by entering information into rows and columns."

The other appeal is the way R can be easily modified for a particular need, which has seen thousands of packages created and listed at the R website. One package harnesses R to unify international datasets to better understand Covid-19, collating governmental sources as well as the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, World Bank Open Data and even mobility reports from Google and Apple.

The open-source ethos of R has been integral to its success. R itself replaced 'S', on which it is based. But S, developed in the 1970s at Bell Labs was a proprietary language that failed to take off. 

Even with the rise of corporate data companies using proprietary techniques to mine and present data, R has continued to grow in use. 

Open versus proprietary

Indeed, as Tiobe notes, "the days of commercial statistical languages and packages such as SAS, Stata and SPSS are over."

Nearly 25 years after its release, R is having a renaissance and could play a small but crucial role in the pandemic response. 

And what became of Ihaka and Gentleman? Ihaka, a statistician, went on to develop another programming language, based on Lisp and rose to the position of associate professor at the University of Auckland before retiring in 2017.

Gentleman, a Canadian by birth, followed up R with the Bioconductor Project, which applied the same statistical and open source approach to bioinformatics and computational biology. After a stint at biotechnology Genentech, he joined personal genomics company 23andMe in 2015 as vice president.


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