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Simple tips to demystify data science

By Virginia Ward

In his CAR Conference session on demystifying data, Hadley Wickham said his job is to push R as far as it can possibly go.

The chief scientist at RStudio develops free tools to explore R, an open-source statistical language. He is also an adjunct professor of statistics at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Stanford University and Rice University.

When first opening a database, Wickham said it’s common for the blinking cursor to intimidate users. His first tip in demystifying data science is to understand that programming languages are just languages with text. Not only can these texts be copied and pasted, but they can be reproduced and shared.

Wickham said the best way to learn a programming language is by joining an online community. Advanced and new users can work to troubleshoot together through organizations like or

Open-source programs like GitHub can enhance communication between developers and journalists, making the experience of learning R feel less daunting.

He said while learning a coding language for the first time can be difficult, it will pay off in the long run. Wickham encouraged data journalists to continue updating their knowledge because things keep changing.

“Embrace the change,” Wickham said. “You don’t want to end up stuck using technology from 30 years ago.”

It’s not just the individual pieces of R that give users the power, Wickham said. It’s the glue. R language can solve complex problems by combining simple pieces. These pieces can be learned along the way and help journalists solve problems in future projects.

While Wickham said R can be used to do just about anything, journalists can specifically use the language to tell great visual stories. Wickham hopes journalists can start asking what they want to do with their data rather than how to use their computers to work with it.

“The goal of R Studio is to have a positive impact on the world by creating open-source content,” Wickham said. “Giving people the tools to understand data is really important.”

Virginia Ward is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.


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