Statistics legend Ross Ihaka reflects on his revolutionary software

By Ximena Smith

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the number-crunching software that Ross Ihaka (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne) co-created 30 years ago.

You may have never heard his name before, but it’s likely his software regularly touches your life in some way - predicting the weather forecast for next week, for example. Or maybe it’s helped scientists analyse the effectiveness of the drugs in your medicine cabinet.

Without getting too technical: the software is a statistical programming language called ‘R’, and it was developed by Ihaka and a colleague at the University of Auckland in the 1990s.

Today, R is depended upon around the world by analysts, data scientists and big-name companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and the New York Times, and it’s garnered Ihaka something of a rockstar status in the field of data science and statistics.

He’s received numerous accolades over the years recognising his work, such as the Royal Society of New Zealand’s prestigious Pickering Medal, and the Statistical Computing and Graphics Award from the American Statistical Association.

Asked how many people use R on a daily basis, Ihaka’s guess is in the millions but he’s not quite sure how many million.

“It's a question that's come up again and again since we started working on it. Because we just give it away and don't track where it goes, we have no idea how many copies get made,” Ihaka says.

Part of the reason why the R software has spread so far and wide is because it's free - and it always has been.

Ihaka and R’s co-founder, Robert Gentleman, believed in the ethos of the free software movement that began in the 1980s, which is that users should be free to share, study and modify software in the way they want to.

“We did briefly think about making commercial software and we thought we might be successful enough to sell 10 copies, [but] who the heck cares about that. So we went the free software route and just let it spread itself basically.”

These days, Ihaka has lost track of the many ways people use the software.

“You'll find that there are people who have written [R] programmes to solve Sudoku,” Ihaka says.

“There are all sorts of applications that you wouldn't have expected, and that's one measure of success for a programming language: If it gets used for things you didn't in your wildest dreams expect, then it's been a success.”

If you look back at Ihaka’s early career, it’s unsurprising that he built something revolutionary.

While he was completing his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s, he was rubbing shoulders with people who were doing pioneering computer science work, such as building the basic infrastructure of the internet.

One of those people was Bill Joy, who went on to found the computer company Sun Microsystems and was touted as the ‘Edison of the Internet’ by Fortune Magazine in 1999.

Another was Eric Schmidt, who later became the chief executive of Google.

Ihaka says it was surreal to be in that environment at that point because “it was clear that what was going on was very important work.”

The time Ihaka spent at the University of California Berkeley clearly made an impression: He now has the university’s motto, ‘fiat lux’ (‘let there be light’ in Latin) tattooed on his forearm.

It’s just one of the tattoos Ihaka has signifying his ‘academic whakapapa’. He says he plans to get a few more in the future too.

But when it comes to Ihaka’s Māori whakapapa, things get a bit more complicated. 

Ihaka says he doesn’t have a strong sense of cultural connection to his Māori heritage because he’s always lived far away from his iwi; both of his parents were country school teachers, so his family moved around a lot when he was a kid.

“It was so rural, there really weren't many people around. I remember a couple of farming families in the neighbourhood, but that was about it,” Ihaka says.

The era he grew up in also contributed to his sense of cultural disconnect.

“​​My father was one of a generation who weren't allowed to speak Māori, and in fact, his grandfather would beat him if he ever caught him speaking Māori. So we lost a certain amount at that point,” Ihaka says.

But he says he’s always known who he is and where he’s from.

“It's a funny position to be in. I would say I'm Māori, I'm Pākehā, I'm both, and I'm neither.”

Another interesting position Ihaka has found himself in is being a Māori scientist working in the hard mathematical sciences, particularly when it comes to the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science.

Over a decade ago, he was involved in a project led by Waikato University’s Linda Tuhiwai Smith, which brought together mātauranga Māori experts and Māori scientists through a series of wānanga.

“The project really was to try and bring mātauranga Māori and science together and to see where that was practical and where it was difficult,” Ihaka says.

“I found value in all knowledge that was presented and considered, and I think importantly that the other people there, the traditional knowledge holders and the scientists, felt the same way.”

Ihaka therefore believes recent discussions around the ‘equal status’ of mātauranga are a red herring.

“I don't think you can view knowledge as competitive. Well, within a particular discipline you may have competing theories, but the disciplines themselves shouldn't be regarded as competitive,” he says.

“The important thing is that people avail themselves of the knowledge - make use of it.”