Academic unfazed by rock star status

By Juliet Middleton

As statistician Ross Ihaka was pottering among his tomatoes in Avondale yesterday, the influential New York Times was raving about the free, statistical computing and graphics language he developed.

The 1200-word feature confirmed the mild-mannered University of Auckland academic as something of a rock star among number-crunchers.

That big reputation has arisen from one little letter, R, the name of the user-friendly programming language that started as a conversation and became a renowned data analysis tool, at its heart hundreds of volunteers all over the world who refine and extend it.

R has taken off because engineers, statisticians and scientists find it easy to use and customise.

In a data-saturated world, it's an important tool for companies like Shell, Google, Merck and the Bank of America, as well as universities like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard.

Dr Ihaka, a 54-year-old separated dad of two teenage girls who calls himself "a happy Westie", isn't comfortable being a poster boy. But as he was checking out his veggie garden, the feature in the online Times was the most popular technology article and its 10th most-forwarded story overall.

R blossomed after Waiuku-born Dr Ihaka had a corridor conversation with then-colleague Robert Gentleman about better technology for their students to analyse data and do graphs.

They were not expert programmers, but in 1991 started building "a basic structure that people could start plugging things into".

Hundreds of experts got involved, with the result that R is now available through 75 internet sites in 30 countries, and has become a threat to commercial counterparts. R has spawned 40 books, and the journal paper introducing it has been cited 1700 times.

Dr Ihaka, of Pakeha and Ngati Kahungungu background, described R as the success of the rusting-hulk model of software development.

"My [doctoral] adviser from California visited for a year and he described a way of getting a car in New Zealand.

"If you went to a junkyard and hauled out an old junker and put it by the road and stood there looking helpless, people, being do-it-yourself types, would step and help you out, and after a couple of hours you'd have a pretty good car.

"So we cobbled this thing together and hung it out by the side of the internet, and after a few years we had a pretty good piece of software. But it's the contribution of lots of people."

Colleague Chris Wild describes Dr Ihaka as "independent-minded, principled, and a passionate believer in the power of open-source software".

Dr Ihaka ignored the naysayers, he says, and resisted pressure to commercialise R, adamant that its accessibility was its strength.

Neither Dr Ihaka nor Dr Gentleman, now at a cancer research centre in Seattle, thought R would go global, "not in our wildest dreams".

And Dr Ihaka could not foresee that the experience would have a personal impact - tempering a well-honed cynicism.

"R changed my opinion of humanity to some extent, to see how people are really willing to freely give of themselves and produce something larger than themselves without any thought of personal glory. There's a lot of work with no recognition."

But he finds the accolades "kind of embarrassing".

"There are other people who have done as least as much work as Robert and I."

And it's that collaboration, he says, that is the best part of his job. It offers a great deal of satisfaction, if "no money, fame and babes".

- NZ Herald

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