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R and The New York Times

by Steve Miller, President, OpenBIThursday, January 29, 2009

I just had an article posted on the new Information Management (DM Review) media site on statistical learning in R. For those unfamiliar, the R Project for Statistical Computing is fast becoming the statistical and analytics platform of choice for a world-wide cadre of academic and open source-inclined statisticians. I love R and have been gratified to cover its rapid progress in the BI media for OpenBI.

On January 7, The New York Times published an article Data Analysts Captivated by R's Power, that coincided conveniently with a webinar co-hosted by Jaspersoft and OpenBI on extending Jaspersoft's BI capabilities through platform integration with R.

Overall, I thought the article was pretty good, but noted a few annoyances in my Information Management article. First, I don't know of anyone who'd describe R as "a supercharged version of Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software." Most R users view Microsoft as the evil empire and acknowledge them as little as possible. Second, and more critically, the article didn't pay proper homage to the work of John Chambers and colleagues at Bell Labs who developed R's predecessor S in the 80's and 90's. To be sure, Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman (the R guys) worked heroically to engender R, but R is essentially a re-write of S – so without S there'd be no R. Indeed Insightful, purveyor of S+, the commercial version of S, was recently acquired by TIBCO in a market concession move. S+ is an outstanding product, but lost the battle to its open source kin.

My overall take on the article, though, was positive: I was happy to see R get the long-overdue attention from a mainstream publication like the Times. Follow-up postings and blogs seemed to clarify the ambiguities. Several participants in R's passionate support forums couldn't seem to let go, however, claiming all types of ulterior motives for both the article and platform authors.

Commercial software vendors regularly attack an open source entry in their market by promoting FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt. An article quote on R by a SAS marketing executive seemed to hit a FUD nerve with the open source community:

"I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code," said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, "We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet."

To which Vanderbilt Professor Frank Harrell, an esteemed member of the R community, responded:

"This is great to see.  It's interesting that SAS Institute feels that non-peer-reviewed software with hidden implementations of analytic methods that cannot be reproduced by others should be trusted when building aircraft engines."


About the Author:

Steve Miller is President of OpenBI, LLC, a Chicago-based services firm focused on delivering business intelligence solutions with open source software. A statistician/quantitative analyst by education, Steve has 30 years BI experience. His charter – and OpenBI's – is to help customers manage performance through optimal deployment of analytics. Steve is a columnist for DMReview and writes also for BIReview and the B-Eye-Network. In addition to R, OpenBI specializes in the Pentaho and JasperSoft open source BI platforms and Weka data mining. Steve can be reached at steve.miller@openbi.com.


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