Data Science on a Chromebook

About nine months ago I announced that I was attempting a Chromebook experiment for the 2nd time. At first I thought it was going to be a short term experiment just to see if it was possible to function with only a Chromebook. But in an interesting twist I got used to it and have been working exclusively on a Chromebook for the last few months since the experiment started.

I set myself the following requirements:

  1. I could only use Chrome OS - no installing/booting to Linux
  2. I couldn’t use another computer for any task
  3. I had to be “fully cloudy” in the sense that I didn’t run any additional hardware

One of the reasons I did this was I wanted to see if it was possible to be a functioning/day to day data scientist without using an expensive laptop. This is part of a broader experiment I’m just beginning on how to democratize data science education.

I’m not going to go into extreme detail on how I set everything up here (more on that in a second) but I thought I’d describe my Chromebook set up that I’ve been using for the last couple of months.

I have been using two Samsung Chromebook Plus computers, one of which I keep at home and one which I keep at work. One of the best parts about the fully cloudy/Chrome OS requirement is this means that from the user perspective everything is always in sync. I log off the computer at home, come to work, log on and its like I’m on the same computer.

I thought I’d just go through at a high level the software I’m using to keep everything running.

  • Google Slides for presentations - (Cost:free) For the most part this has been really easy and is a smooth transition from Powerpoint. One thing I’ve found really useful is the laser pointer mode of the Chromebook plus for highlighting things on screen when presenting. I have also found that since they are using USB-C adapters I can participate in dongle communism with Apple users. I had to figure out the display mirroring menus in Chrome OS but after that this was easy.
  • Google Docs/Paperpile for writing - (Cost:free) This works great and has been my work flow as I describe in my book since before the Chromebook experiment started.
  • DocHub for signing things - (Cost:\$4.99/month/billed yearly) Often I have to “sign” a document by adding my electronic signature. I used the note feature to create a jpeg of my signature. I can then upload the file to Docub
  • Overleaf for writing latex - (Cost:free or \$10/month/billed yearly) This is not necessary for all data scientists, but it has some nice features, including when I could live write a grant and people could watch.
  • Gmail for email - (Cost:free) this one is pretty obvious.
  • Google Sheets for data - (Cost:free) this is again a choice I had been making frequently before I moved to Chromebooks. The googlesheets R package lets you do all sorts of cool things with google sheets.
  • Digital Ocean for Rstudio - _(Cost: \$20/mo)__ I set up an Rstudio server and run it remotely on Digital Ocean. I currently use the \$20/month option but sometimes scale it up or down as needed. One great thing about the dockerized version of the software is that I can pause the instance, scale up the compute infrastructre, restart and everything is just as I left it but with more computational horsepower. I can then use that for a few hours as needed and scale back down. I use the terminal in Rstudio for most of my management of code/etc. on Github.
  • Google Hangouts for video conferencing - (Cost:free) this is the default but honestly I wish I had a better option. I often find it complicated and laggy to work with, but still mostly better than Skype. Would be open to suggestions on that front.
  • Slack for communication (Cost: \$6.67/month) a variety of different teams here at JHU and around the country use Slack for group communication. I use it through the web browser, although the Chromebook Plus allows you to install Android apps.
  • Google Music for listening to music/podcasts (Cost:\$10/month) This is an unnecesary expense but I like having something to listen to while I work.
  • Tweetdeck for twitter - (Cost:free) I have a couple of accounts I manage and I do this through the web browser. For the most part this works great.

So my total monthly cost comes to something like \$35 a month for various cloud services. At first doing this was sort of like writing a Haiku. I could still write, but the constraints made me think hard about how I did things. But after a while I have gotten so used to the form that it feels natural and I don’t miss my (really expensive) Apple products anymore.

The biggest headaches have been:

  • Wifi connectivity issues - this isn’t as big as I thought it would be, most places have wifi where I work and it is mostly ok. When I have trouble I stream from my phone.
  • Wifi blocking my DO server - this one has been a headache. I think if I just got a custom domain for the webserver and didn’t just use the IP address I could avoid it. When I have trouble I stream from my phone.
  • httr and Rstudio on a server - when I need to authenticate for websites I have run into trouble, but if I set httr_oob_default==TRUE (documentation here) then the Oauth process generates a code I can paste into my server.

Beyond that it has actually been pretty straightforward to do almost anything I need. Stay tuned because this experiment has inspired a broader effort we are doing with Chromebooks here at the JHU Data Science Lab. If you want to hear about this effort as it gets underway, sign up for our weekly newsletter and you’ll be the first to hear new announcements.

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