Hadley Wickham, a statistician from Hamilton, has won the international 2019 COPSS Presidents' Award. The New Zealander's work has been successful in part because of his pragmatic Kiwi approach.
The prize is awarded annually to a statistician under 40 in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession of statistics.
Previously the award has primarily recognised highly theoretical contributions to statistics. This year is the first time it has been awarded for practical application.
Wickham is the chief scientist at RStudio and is an adjunct professor at Auckland, Rice, Stanford Universities.
Wickham grew up in Hamilton and attended Fairfield College before studying medicine at Auckland University. Finding that medicine didn't suit him, he returned to study Statistics and Computer Science before going on to complete a PhD in the United States.
The award citation recognised Wickham's "influential work in statistical computing, visualisation, graphics, and data analysis" including "making statistical thinking and computing accessible to a large audience".
Wickham's work is used daily by thousands of people around the world, including the New Zealand Herald's data journalists. The BBC recently released a detailed guide on the use of Wickham's tools for news graphics.
His work builds on and adds to the success of "R", an open-source statistically-oriented programming language created at the University of Auckland by Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman.
Wickham pioneered a suite of tools for R initially known as the "Tidyverse". Originally, in recognition of Wickham's important contribution, the statistics community referred to these tools as the 'hadleyverse'.
He describes himself as a tool-builder, not of physical tools like hammers and screwdrivers, but software tools that work in the same way.
"They give you leverage over data so that you can do things that you can't do as an unaided human. So that you can really dig into a dataset and learn what secrets are hidden there," he says.
The origins of Wickham's work can be found in his New Zealand education. While studying in Auckland he considered himself to be "quite theoretical", and when he started working in the United States he realised that in fact his focus was "incredibly applied".
"The field of statistics in New Zealand is in general very practical and pragmatic".
Wickham sees this tendency to stay focused on what is "practically important as a great characteristic."
Wickham hasn't forgotten his origins. His tools include the rare programmable feature of allowing developers to use the commands colour or color and summarise or summarize without penalty.
Wickham's work was recently used in a both a local and personally significant way at New Zealand Animal Evaluation Ltd, a subsidiary of DairyNZ, where Wickham's father has put his son's tools to work on processing and understanding New Zealand's dairy industry data.