Atlanta tells a new story about data
by Rob Clewley
In late 2015, the three of us (Tony Fast, Neel Shivdasani, and myself) had been regularly nerding out about data over beers and becoming fast friends. We were eager to see a shift from Atlanta’s data community to be more welcoming and encouraging towards beginners, self-starters, and generalists. We were about to find out that we were not alone.
We had met at local data science-related events earlier in the year and had discovered that we had lots of opinions—and weren’t afraid to advocate for them. But we also found that we listened to reason (data-driven learning!), appreciated the art in doing good science, and cared about people and the community. Open science, open data, free-and-open-source software, and creative forms of technical communication and learning were all recurring themes in our conversations. We also all agreed that Python is a great language for working with data.
Invitations were extended to like-minded friends, and the informal hangout was soon known as “Data Beers”. The consistent good buzz that Data Beers generated helped us realize an opportunity to contribute more widely to the Atlanta community. At the time, Atlanta was beginning its emergence as a new hub in the tech world and startup culture.
Some of the existing data-oriented meetups around Atlanta have a more formal business atmosphere, or are highly focused on specific tools or tech opinions. Such environments seem to intimidate newcomers and those less formally educated in math or computer science. This inspired us to take a new perspective through an informal and eclectic approach. So, in January 2016, with the support of not-for-profit organization NumFOCUS, we set up the Atlanta chapter of PyData.
The mission of NumFOCUS is to promote sustainable high-level programming languages, open code development, and reproducible scientific research. NumFOCUS sponsors PyData conferences and local meetups internationally. The PyData community gathers to discuss how best to apply tools using Python, R, Stan, and Julia to meet evolving challenges in data management, processing, analytics, and visualization. In all, PyData is over 28,000 members across 52 international meetups. The Python language and the data-focused ecosystem that has grown around it has been remarkably successful in attracting an inclusive mindset centered around free and open-source software and science. Our Atlanta chapter aims to be even more neutral about specific technologies so long as the underlying spirit resonates with our mission.
The three of us, with the help of friend and colleague Lizzy Rolando, began sourcing great speakers who have a distinctive approach to using data that resonated with the local tech culture. We hosted our first meetup in early April. From the beginning, we encouraged a do-it-yourself, interactive vibe to our meetings, supporting shorter-format 30 minute presentations with 20 minute question and answer sessions.
Regardless of the technical focus, we try to bring in speakers who are applying their data-driven work to something of general interest. Our programming balances technical and more qualitative talks. Our meetings have covered a diverse range of applications, addressing computer literacy and education, human rights, neuroscience, journalism, and civics.
A crowd favorite is the inclusion of 3-4 audience-submitted lightning talks at the end of the main Q&A. The strictly five-minute talks add more energy to the mix and give a wider platform to the local community. They’re an opportunity to practice presentation skills for students, generate conversations around projects needing collaborators, discussions about new tools, or just have fun looking at interesting data sets.
Students, career changers, and professionals have come together as members of PyData to learn and share. Our network has generated new friends, collaborators, and even new jobs. Local organizations that share our community spirit provide generous sponsorship and refreshments for our meetings.
We believe we were in the right place at the right time to meet a need. It’s evident in the positive response and rapid growth we’ve seen, having acquired over 1,000 members in one year and hosted over 120 attendees at our last event. It has been a whirlwind experience, and we are delighted that our community has shared our spirit and become involved with us so strongly. Here’s to healthy, productive, data-driven outcomes for all of us in 2017!