The CLESSN at Université Laval and UnicornPowered Securely Share Research on AWS

Executive Summary

The Leadership Chair in the Teaching of Digital Social Science (CLESSN) at the Université Laval collected hundreds of gigabytes of data to inform public audience and social research by analyzing mood levels of survey respondents, headlines from major Canadian media outlets, and policy decision-making transcriptions. However, it lacked a way to securely and compliantly share that data across its many research institutions.

In 2021, the CLESSN migrated part of its computing infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS) by working alongside AWS Public Sector Partner UnicornPowered. Both organizations also worked together to develop a web application that helps the public, media, researchers, and policy makers to analyze public sentiment and inform their decision-making while anonymizing personally identifiable information to protect individuals’ privacy in the CLESSN’s social research.

Overcoming Roadblocks to Research Collaboration on AWS

Based in Québec City, Université Laval has over CAD $400 million in research funding. More than 45,000 students are enrolled in its 500 programs across 60 departments, schools, and institutes. The university comprises over 300 research centers, chairs, and other groups. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yannick Dufresne—Research Chair Holder for the CLESSN at the Université Laval—launched Projet Quorum, an initiative funded by the government of Québec and various research groups. The initiative uses a web application that aggregates data to gauge the sentiment of public opinion, Canadian media, and the country’s decision makers in near real-time.

By July 2021, the project had collected 500 GB of data, with a growth rate of 50 GB per month. Previously, Dufresne’s team gathered data from a computer and manually uploaded it to a server. However, because the university has a decentralized legacy system of many on-premises servers and disparate information technology teams, it was challenging to transfer the data from server to server so that other research teams could access it. A significant amount of time was spent managing the system and implementing new hardware to generate the compute power it needed to accommodate traffic spikes. Also, preparing the large datasets for analysis was time consuming. Researchers spent 80 percent of their time cleaning, tagging, and anonymizing the data and just five percent of their time analyzing it. 

The CLESSN chose to work with UnicornPowered because of other internal institutions’ recommendations of the cloud services provider. “We have a lot of data and knowledge of sciences but few technical skills,” says Dufresne. “That’s why we began working with UnicornPowered.” Founded in 2018 and an AWS Partner since 2019, UnicornPowered is a cloud-native software development company that offers three main services: cloud-native development, cloud migration, and cloud optimization. UnicornPowered and the CLESSN decided to build a solution that would scale automatically to meet traffic and facilitate data analysis, anonymize personally identifiable information, and act as a bridge between the university’s data lake and the various groups that were surveyed.

Building a Secure, Compliant Application for Research

The CLESSN and UnicornPowered began developing Projet Quorum in July 2020. By September, the first version of Projet Quorum was ready, and UnicornPowered had completed its migration of data to AWS. “Being an AWS Partner is very helpful for us,” says Eric Pinet, CEO and Co-founder of UnicornPowered. “We have support from AWS solutions architects when we have a technical question.” In October, UnicornPowered presented the application to all 42 stakeholders at Université Laval. It completed the alpha version of Projet Quorum in November and presented it to the university’s faculty dean in December. The project was completed in February 2021, only seven months after its start.

For its computing infrastructure, the Université Laval and UnicornPowered took advantage of AWS Fargate, a serverless compute engine for containers that removes the need to provision and manage servers. By migrating to the cloud, the CLESSN was able to automatically scale its application and save on computing costs. To analyze and meet its traffic demand at peak hours, it also used Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), which provides cost-efficient and resizable capacity while automating time-consuming administration tasks such as hardware provisioning, database setup, patching, and backups. “It was so important to engage professionals at AWS instead of thinking that we could do it by ourselves,” says Dufresne. “AWS is where to invest if you want an infrastructure that will still be there in 10 years.”

“It was so important to engage professionals at AWS instead of thinking that we could do it by ourselves. AWS is where to invest if you want an infrastructure that will still be there in 10 years.”

-  Yannick Dufresne, Research Chair Holder, Leadership Chair in the Teaching of Digital Social
Science, Université Laval

For storing large amounts of data, the CLESSN used Amazon RDS alongside Amazon Aurora, a MySQL- and PostgreSQL-compatible relational database built for the cloud. Using these solutions, the CLESSN can securely store and encrypt the results of its surveys without experiencing crashes or faults in its database. By the end of the project, it had collected and stored over 18 TB of data. To accelerate the delivery of its static website, it began using Amazon CloudFront, a fast content delivery network service that securely delivers data, videos, applications, and APIs to customers globally with low latency and high transfer speeds. It also used Amazon CloudFront to host its application.

To maintain the confidentiality of its participants’ personally identifiable information, the CLESSN also used AWS Shield, a managed distributed denial of service protection service that safeguards applications running on AWS. “By using AWS security solutions, we can enforce strong security and confidentiality,” says Pinet. “We migrated to the cloud according to best practices and created a private sign-on to implement required security principles around all our infrastructure.”

Sharing the System with Other Research Institutions

With the help of UnicornPowered, the CLESSN at the Université Laval built an application on AWS that grants equitable access to data, powering collaborative research during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. “Projet Quorum is a great example of open science, knowledge transfer, and data accessibility,” says Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist for the Government of Québec. “We need more scientists in the public sphere.”

UnicornPowered and Université Laval are working on another initiative related to Projet Quorum that may extend the project to other industries, such as healthcare. The CLESSN is also corresponding with other researchers in Europe and Japan who want to use the application for their own research purposes. “The largest benefit is to see my students being able to use data that they wouldn’t have had access to in the past,” says Dufresne. “It’s upgraded our game. The students know that they are in a place that will set them apart from other researchers.”

Universite Laval

About Université Laval

Based in Québec City, Université Laval is a research university in Canada with over CAD$400 million in research funding. Its more than 45,000 students study in 500 programs across 60 departments, schools, and institutes.

About UnicornPowered

UnicornPowered's AWS certified experts support companies in their migration, optimization, or development of cloud native applications. The UnicornPowered team will be a partner in the success of your cloud transition, from planning to delivery.

Published October 2021