Most data scientists favor Python as a programming language these days. However, there’s also still a large group of data scientists coming from a statistics, econometrics, or social science and therefore favoring R, the programming language they learned in university. Now there’s a new kid on the block: Julia.
Advantages & Disadvantages
According to some, you can think of Julia as a mixture of R and Python, but faster. As a programming language for data science, Julia has some major advantages:
Julia is light-weight and efficient and will run on the tiniest of computers
Julia is just-in-time (JIT) compiled, and can approach or match the speed of C
Julia is a functional language at its core
Julia support metaprogramming: Julia programs can generate other Julia programs
Julia has a math-friendly syntax
Julia has refined parallelization compared to other data science languages
Julia can call C, Fortran, Python or R packages
However, others also argue that Julia comes with some disadvantages for data science, like data frame printing, 1-indexing, and its external package management.
You can click the links below to jump directly to the section you’re interested in. Once there, you can compare the packages and functions that allow you to perform Data Science tasks in the three languages.
Gordon finds that there are four main features of the R programming language that are essential to his work and in a sense unique to the R language. Here they are, along with quotes by Gordon explaining R’s unique selling points in his words:
(1) Native data science structures
It’s relatively easy to do data science in R without any external libraries. You can read data from a csv into a data frame, plot and clean that data, and analyse it using built-in statistical models.
(2) Non-standard evaluation
Non-standard evaluation lets you do things like use a variable name in a plot title, or evaluate a user-supplied expression in a different environment.
For example, R lets you specify models with a formula interface like this: lm(mtcars, mpg ~ cyl). This is a natural way for statisticians to specify statistical models because they’re usually familliar with the syntax, but without NSE there’s no way to make that function work as written because mpg and cylare not objects in the calling environment.
(3) Packaging concensus
R let me get up and running, installing packages, filtering data, and printing plots in under 20 minutes, which meant that I stayed interested in the language and eventually started using it professionally. I had actually started to learn Python at around the same time but just found it too difficult. […]
The user that I care the most about only has 20 minutes of attention and no real programming skill, so the only thing they can “just” do is copy and paste one line of code into a console. If that doesn’t work, I’ve lost them, and they’ll spend another lonely year renewing their SPSS licenses.
(4) Functional programming
I really like this pattern of [functional] programming because breaking complicated jobs down into small functional bricks gives me confidence that the overall solution is correct. I can work on the small functions, verify that they’re correct through tests, and then know that combining those building blocks together won’t change their behaviour.
Although I personally do not fully agree with these four points (e.g., I very much like to leverage functional programming in Python and it works like a charm!) I very much liked the outline Gordon provides. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, so do share them in the comments.
For now, let’s end with some other lovely quotes by Gordon:
The thing is, I don’t use R out of some blind brand loyalty but because I don’t like working hard.
I came to R from an Excel background, and for a long time I had internalized the feeling that serious engineers used Python, while analysts or researchers could use languages like R. Over time I’ve realized that the people making that statement often aren’t really informed. They rarely know anything about R, and often don’t really write production-quality code themselves.
In contrast, most of the very senior engineers I’ve met understand that all programming languages are basically just bundles of trade-offs, and so no single language is going to be globally superior to another. There really are no production languages – only production engineers.
This workshop is designed for those who want to learn how to use R to analyze data. The material is based on Hadley Wickham and Garrett Grolemund’s R for Data Science. We’ll talk about how to conduct a complete data analysis from data import to final reporting in R using a suite of packages known as the tidyverse. The two goals of this workshop are: 1) learn how to use R to answer questions about our data; and 2) write code that is human readable and reproducible. We will also talk about how to share our code and analyses with others.
You should take this workshop if you are new to R, or to the tidyverse, and want to learn how to take advantage of this ecosystem to do data analysis. You’ll get the most from the workshop if you are primarily interested in applying pre-existing R packages and functions to your own data. We will give minimal tutorials on how to write your own functions; however, the main focus will be on using existing tools, rather than building our own.
Kelly Bodwin is an Assistant Professor of Statistics at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) and teaches multiple courses in statistical programming. Based on her experiences, she compiled this great shortlist of five great tips to teach programming.
Kelly truly mentions some best practices, so have a look at the original article, which she summarized as follows:
1. Define your terms
Establish basic coding vocabulary early on.
What is the console, a script, the environment?
What is a function a variable, a dataframe?
What are strings, characters, and integers?
2. Be deliberate about teaching versus bypassing peripheral skills
MIT researchers have spent years developing the new drag-and-drop analytics tools they call Northstar.
Northstar is an interactive data science platform that rethinks how people interact with data. It empowers users without programming experience, background in statistics or machine learning expertise to explore and mine data through an intuitive user interface, and effortlessly build, analyze, and evaluate machine learning (ML) pipelines.
Northstar starts as a blank, white interface. Users upload datasets into the system, which appear in a “datasets” box on the left. Any data labels will automatically populate a separate “attributes” box below. There’s also an “operators” box that contains various algorithms, as well as the new AutoML tool. All data are stored and analyzed in the cloud.
You can read more about the tool’s functionalities in this MIT news article, which includes several promising GIFs:
Moreover, on the Northstar website you can find this longer video explaining the tool in detail.
While Northstar looks insanely cool and promising, I do worry about putting such power in the hands of people who may not have much experience with statistics and/or machine learning. We all know how easily errors and bias may slip into data-driven processes, so I am curious to see how these next-gen kind of tools will be deployed and used.