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Using Big Data to Save Dogs and Cats

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The number of unwanted pets in this country is a great and crushingly sad problem; of the 7.6 million dogs and cats that various shelters and organizations take in each year, about 2.7 million don’t survive the year. It’s a problem partly of bad luck, partly of bad pet ownership, and, as it turns out, partly a problem of improper data use and assumptions. The ASPCA found out that last part after the organization began using Geographic Information System (GIS) techniques to approach the problem in a totally new way: where are these unwanted cats and dogs coming from, and how can we ensure that more of them stay in happy homes?

“The issue really is that, nationally, animal shelters are seeing animals come into the shelters in large numbers,” says Meg Allison, GIS Data Manager for the ASPCA. “And with limited resources, the ASPCA wanted to really target those resources in a way that can make a real difference.” Various animal shelters, from official ASPCA branches, to small non-profits, to rescue centers, assemble huge amounts of data —each animal’s age, weight, breed, health issues, collection location, collection circumstances, and much more — but it appears that data just sat around as part of each shelter’s records. It wasn’t being used, which Allison and her team recognized as a huge wasted opportunity.

The team began collecting the data and mapping it using common GIS processes, which are already in use by, for example, large companies and first responders in emergencies. “GIS is not a new technology, by any means,” says Allison. “But it is brand new for animal welfare organizations to use it.” GIS is a broad term that applies to any of several different ways to use data that’s pegged to specific locations — basically, it’s map science — figuring out how to use map data to solve problems.

For the ASPCA, much of the work focuses on finding what Allison calls “hotspots.” Unwanted and abandoned pets, more than feral animals, are seen as a problem that GIS can solve, and that means finding out where exactly the animals tend to come from. Without that knowledge, the ASPCA’s limited resources could be wasted: the resources would simply be spread out evenly, which means some areas get unnecessary resources and some get too little. Or, even worse, shelters would assume they knew where those hotspots were, but not based on any data — and those assumptions could be wrong. “It's really been interesting to see the data speak, because a lot of times that cultural knowledge, where they think the animals are coming from, is not actually true or reflected in the data,” says Allison. “Sometimes it's a good reality check.”

Once the shelters know where the resources are needed, they can pour them into those specific areas, using various time-tested means to prevent animals from being surrendered at shelters because their owners gave up. The shelters are, says Allison, “providing clients with services like neutering  and small medical interventions (vaccines), to potentially anything the clients need, within reason.” And more data can only help, even information that might seem irrelevant: dealing with adult pets, for example, tends to be totally different than juveniles, because the needs and wants of the owner will be different. A puppy a family has had for two weeks is a different scenario than an adult cat.

The ASPCA’s team is small, but they’re making a concerted effort to make their software available to any shelter that wants it, within reason. A community has to, for example, have at least two separate shelters providing data before the ASPCA will help out. (With only one shelter, the data can be so skewed as to be useless.) But, thanks to a grant from PetSmart Charities, the ASPCA’s GIS team can assist most communities, since almost every area has at least two shelters. It might seem simple to analyze this data, but it’s something that’s never been done before, and something that has the potential to greatly reduce the number of unwanted cats and dogs.

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