is the Dobelman Family Junior Chair of Statistics at Rice University. Prior to moving to Rice, he completed his Ph.D. in Statistics from Iowa State University. He is the developer of the wildly popular ggplot2
software for data visualization and a contributor to the Ggobi
project. He has developed a number of really useful R packages touching everything from data processing, to data modeling, to visualization.
Which term applies to you: data scientist, statistician, computer
scientist, or something else?
I’m an assistant professor of statistics, so I at least partly
associate with statistics :). But the idea of data science really
resonates with me: I like the combination of tools from statistics and
computer science, data analysis and hacking, with the core goal of
developing a better understanding of data. Sometimes it seems like not
much statistics research is actually about gaining insight into data.
You have created/maintain several widely used R packages. Can you
describe the unique challenges to writing and maintaining packages
above and beyond developing the methods themselves?
I think there are two main challenges: turning ideas into code, and
documentation and community building.
Compared to other languages, the software development infrastructure
in R is weak, which sometimes makes it harder than necessary to turn
my ideas into code. Additionally, I get less and less time to do
software development, so I can’t afford to waste time recreating old
bugs, or releasing packages that don’t work. Recently, I’ve been
investing time in helping build better dev infrastructure; better
tools for documentation [roxygen2], unit testing [testthat], package development [devtools], and creating package website [staticdocs]. Generally, I’ve
found unit tests to be a worthwhile investment: they ensure you never
accidentally recreate an old bug, and give you more confidence when
radically changing the implementation of a function.
Documenting code is hard work, and it’s certainly something I haven’t
mastered. But documentation is absolutely crucial if you want people
to use your work. I find the main challenge is putting yourself in the
mind of the new user: what do they need to know to use the package
effectively. This is really hard to do as a package author because
you’ve internalised both the motivating problem and many of the common
Connected to documentation is building up a community around your
work. This is important to get feedback on your package, and can be
helpful for reducing the support burden. One of the things I’m most
proud of about ggplot2 is something that I’m barely responsible for:
the ggplot2 mailing list. There are now ggplot2 experts who answer far
more questions on the list than I do. I’ve also found github to be
great: there’s an increasing community of users proficient in both R
and git who produce pull requests that fix bugs and add new features.
The flip side of building a community is that as your work becomes
more popular you need to be more careful when releasing new versions.
The last major release of ggplot2 (0.9.0) broke over 40 (!!) CRAN
packages, and forced me to rethink my release process. Now I advertise
releases a month in advance, and run `R CMD check` on all downstream
dependencies (`devtools::revdep_check` in the development version), so
I can pick up potential problems and give other maintainers time to
fix any issues.
Do you feel that the academic culture has caught up with and supports
non-traditional academic contributions (e.g. R packages instead of
It’s hard to tell. I think it’s getting better, but it’s still hard to
get recognition that software development is an intellectual activity
in the same way that developing a new mathematical theorem is. I try
to hedge my bets by publishing papers to accompany my major packages:
I’ve also found the peer-review process very useful for improving the
quality of my software. Reviewers from both the R journal and the
Journal of Statistical Software have provided excellent suggestions
for enhancements to my code.
You have given presentations at several start-up and tech companies.
Do the corporate users of your software have different interests than
the academic users?
By and large, no. Everyone, regardless of domain, is struggling to
understand ever larger datasets. Across both industry and academia,
practitioners are worried about reproducible research and thinking
about how to apply the principles of software engineering to data
You gave one of my favorite presentations called Tidy Data/Tidy Tools
at the NYC Open Statistical Computing Meetup. What are the key
elements of tidy data that all applied statisticians should know?
Thanks! Basically, make sure you store your data in a consistent
format, and pick (or develop) tools that work with that data format.
The more time you spend munging data in the middle of an analysis, the
less time you have to discover interesting things in your data. I’ve
tried to develop a consistent philosophy of data that means when you
use my packages (particularly plyr and ggplot2), you can focus on the
data analysis, not on the details of the data format. The principles
of tidy data that I adhere to are that every column should be a
variable, every row an observation, and different types of data should
live in different data frames. (If you’re familiar with database
normalisation this should sound pretty familiar!). I expound these
principles in depth in my in-progress [paper on the
How do you decide what project to work on next? Is your work inspired
by a particular application or more general problems you are trying to
Very broadly, I’m interested in the whole process of data analysis:
the process that takes raw data and converts it into understanding,
knowledge and insight. I’ve identified three families of tools
(manipulation, modelling and visualisation) that are used in every
data analysis, and I’m interested both in developing better individual
tools, but also smoothing the transition between them. In every good
data analysis, you must iterate multiple times between manipulation,
modelling and visualisation, and anything you can do to make that
iteration faster yields qualitative improvements to the final analysis
(that was one of the driving reasons I’ve been working on tidy data).
Another factor that motivates a lot of my work is teaching. I hate
having to teach a topic that’s just a collection of special cases,
with no underlying theme or theory. That drive lead to [stringr] (for
string manipulation) and [lubridate] (with Garrett Grolemund for working
with dates). I recently released the [httr] package which aims to do a similar thing for http requests - I think this is particularly important as more and more data starts living on the web and must be accessed through an API.
What do you see as the biggest open challenges in data visualization
right now? Do you see interactive graphics becoming more commonplace?
I think one of the biggest challenges for data visualisation is just
communicating what we know about good graphics. The first article
decrying 3d bar charts was published in 1951! Many plots still use
rainbow scales or red-green colour contrasts, even though we’ve known
for decades that those are bad. How can we ensure that people
producing graphics know enough to do a good job, without making them
read hundreds of papers? It’s a really hard problem.
Another big challenge is balancing the tension between exploration and
presentation. For explotary graphics, you want to spend five seconds
(or less) to create a plot that helps you understand the data, while you might spend
five hours on a plot that’s persuasive to an audience who
isn’t as intimately familiar with the data as you. To date, we have
great interactive graphics solutions at either end of the spectrum
(e.g. ggobi/iplots/manet vs d3) but not much that transitions from one
end of the spectrum to the other. This summer I’ll be spending some
time thinking about what ggplot2 + [d3], might
equal, and how we can design something like an interactive grammar of
graphics that lets you explore data in R, while making it easy to
publish interaction presentation graphics on the web.