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Chicago community groups improve data analysis and collaboration with Google Cloud

The Northwestern Neighborhood and Network Initiative (N3) is the research and evaluation partner for several civic organizations in Chicago. When N3 researchers wanted to improve their data collection, collaboration, and access capabilities, they turned to Google Cloud.

By helping local neighborhood groups engage with cutting-edge social science research, the Northwestern Neighborhood and Network Initiative (N3) leverages the power of big data to address core problems affecting the Chicago area. N3 researchers partner with local civic groups working at a grassroots level to improve their own neighborhoods: for example, they work with Chicago CRED to reduce urban gun violence and serve as the research and evaluation partner for the Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative, a community policing initiative designed to change the way the Chicago Police Department polices and to ensure communities have a voice in how they are policed. Andrew Papachristos, Professor of Sociology at Northwestern and faculty director of N3, says that “we're unique in that we’re a broker between datasets and neighborhoods, between nonprofits and government.”

To collaborate effectively, N3 depends on a secure and scalable infrastructure for data management. Yet the ever-growing volume of social science datasets presented several challenges for them. Data files were difficult to access and managing permissions for users inside and outside the organization was complicated. In 2020, working remotely magnified these pain points. With researchers accessing data from many locations, a centralized data system was more important than ever for security and collaboration between N3 researchers and their partners.

Managing large datasets efficiently and securely

Moving their infrastructure to Google Cloud offered N3 the potential to improve data management and security while also enhancing their analysis. Adam Shelton, Data Manager at N3, embarked on a project to build this new infrastructure. First, he moved their data into Big Query, Google’s data warehouse in the cloud. “With BigQuery,” Shelton says, “we can control access better, but also we can interact with data from the web browser, so that you don't have to load up a program.” Now, he reports, N3 analysts can answer data questions on the spot.

With Google Cloud, N3 datasets are consolidated into clear pipelines that can be accessed from any location. Researchers can see what is happening to each data stream and where it stands in the evaluation process. They also have easy access to Google’s public data sets to expand the scope and depth of their studies. With centralized governance, there is a consistent process for reviewing user access.

In addition, the turnaround time for receiving, processing, and displaying data sets improved dramatically. When a new project began with 58 million rows of data, Shelton used BigQuery to aggregate and evaluate the data without ever needing to download the data to a local PC. Before using Google Cloud, this volume of data would have been impossible to analyze effectively. “Google Cloud is a true platform, not just a storage location,” Shelton says. “There are so many inherent cloud functions and tools to automate processing and speed up our analysis workflow. I’m constantly discovering new ways to accomplish our goals on the platform.”

More data analysis in the cloud means more impact in the community

N3 is piloting different approaches to make data more usable and accessible for all Chicagoans. “We've been working with violence prevention initiatives to create network maps of current conflicts,” Papachristos explains. The maps show where disputes are happening and can be shared with first responders on site through an app. “Before,” he says, “I'd share reports in a slideshow. Now, we do this iteratively and interactively, and we’re aiming for real time.” N3 analysts also use Google’s Data Studio to craft narrative visualizations of their data that are easy for people who don’t know how to code to modify and share.

Google Cloud has already transformed the way N3 conducts its research, which will allow the organization to have an even greater impact on Chicago’s communities. Shelton concludes that “Google Cloud has made some projects possible that we wouldn't have been able to do before. Just last week, we were trying to build some complex data models and we couldn't run them on the computers we had. Using Google Compute Engine we were able to spin up a virtual machine (VM) very quickly with very little effort and then run these models. Before it would have just been a dead end.”

To get started with Google Cloud, apply for free credits towards your own cutting-edge research.

Google Cloud is a true platform, not just a storage location. There are so many inherent cloud functions and tools to automate processing and speed up our analysis workflow. I’m constantly discovering new ways to accomplish our goals on the platform.

Adam Shelton, Data Manager, N3

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