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InsulaR launched in Cagliari

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"Open data" is fast becoming a buzzword, especially in news reports or features on issues such as the public administration, active citizenship and transparency. This expression, which just a few years ago was little known and slightly mysterious, is now common currency. Let's start with a definition: as the name suggests, “open data” means data freely available in the public domain, without restrictions on their use and reproduction, and released in open formats.

The growing interest surrounding open data is closely linked to the concept of open government, i.e. public governance based on transparency and public participation. However, the notion of open data has even wider applications, embracing not only governments but a range of other areas too. In the publishing and - more broadly - the creative sector, it is referred to as "open content", i.e. contents available to and usable by anyone (Wikipedia is a classic example of an open-content encyclopaedia). In the computer world, we hear the expression “open source”, which refers to the possibility of accessing the source code, studying it and modifying it, while the concept of "free software" embraces both the user's freedom and the openness of the source code.

In Italy, open data have become known mainly with reference to the public administration sector. However, the free use of data has major implications for the scientific world too. This comes as no surprise to the young Cagliari-based founders of InsulaR, the community dedicated to R, a free statistical analysis software. They are Davide Massidda, Gianmarco Altoè and Francesco Cabiddu, three young people whose study, work and research involve the use of psychometrics and statistics. We asked them to tell us something about InsulaR, its activities and projects for the future.

What exactly is R? How does it work, and what are its potential applications?
R is a free software for the statistical processing of data. R stands apart from other statistical packages on account of certain unique features which have made it one of the world's best known data analysis systems. First of all, it is an open-source project, freely distributed over the web. Consequently, choosing R means there is no need to purchase expensive licenses, without however sacrificing quality - on the contrary, R gives free rein to developers' creativity.

R is conceived as a programming language: instructions are sent via a terminal to an interpreter, which processes the request and supplies a result. This feature makes R highly versatile, since its language allows users to create new instructions to solve problems not originally foreseen by the software. Users can collect their programs in libraries and distribute them to the community. This means that R is developed bottom-up, since what makes it grow are the users' contributions. It also allows users to analyse data at various levels, and to manage statistical models ranging from the most classical to the most innovative, including some not yet implemented in any other software. And in addition to its data analysis capabilities, R incorporates various graphic systems able to generate highly refined graphical displays.

What led you to found InsulaR?
Today, data are a crucial resource, and must be managed in the most efficient way possible. Being familiar with a statistical processing tool such as R is a great opportunity for people working with data. Around the world, R has spawned a number of successful initiatives, which have helped boost local economies. Looking around us, we found that R was still little known in Sardinia. Even Cagliari, quite an active place for IT activities, has so far been slow in taking up R. This problem was noticed by some Cagliari University students, who asked for training to learn to use the R software. So we pooled together those with an interest for R, including students, university researchers and individual professionals, and built up a network.

InsulaR's objective is to link up R users based in Sardinia, especially in the Cagliari area, to promote the spread of its use and of a data-handling culture. We believe that sharing is the engine of innovation and is the only way for ideas to circulate, grow and generate concrete, successful projects.

What kind of people might be interested in your initiative and in using R?
The group was born within Cagliari University, on the initiative of the three of us (Davide Massidda, Gianmarco Altoè and Francesco Cabiddu), working in the fields of psychology and social sciences. However, as a group, our plan is to link up with professionals from all sectors: statistics is a cross-cutting discipline, and our R user group aims to be equally inclusive. Our initiatives target all those professionals and students who deal with data handling and who are interested in learning and spreading the use of R. We are looking in particular at universities, researchers and students, but also at private-sector professionals. We are thinking especially of young people who might want to launch an IT project and who could find R a precious resource.

Has InsulaR spawned any projects yet?
Over the past few months we have focused our efforts on setting up the website www.insular.it, the main gateway for accessing the group. The site has a blog where every member can post articles and tutorials; it is also a way for contributors to make their work known.

What are your plans for the future?
We are currently working on two courses on the use of R, an introductory course and an advanced one - they should start in a few months' time. The first course will teach participants how to handle and manipulate data, and will look at data exploration techniques via the use of graphical plotting and descriptive statistics indices. The second course will cover statistical inference and data modelling techniques, and will look in detail at the R system's graphical libraries. However, InsulaR is not just about training: some of us are already thinking of creating a group to develop a new R library, but it's too early to say more about this.

How does one join InsulaR?
To join our community you only need to register on the website www.insular.it. Joining is free of charge, and once registered you can comment the posts on the blog and receive e-mail alerts on the group's initiatives. To take your involvement a step further, you can submit a request to the technical staff to become an author and publish articles in your name on the blog.

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