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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Analytics, Digital Records Could Save Money and Animals at Pet Shelters

Jill Dyché's description of the technological backwardness of a cash- and resource-strapped animal shelter has salience for the average business organization.

Jill Dyché's presentation at the annual Pacific Northwest BI Summit was the kind of thing we reporter-types tend to have a lot of fun with. The opening words all but write themselves: "The Pacific Northwest BI Summit has gone to the dogs," or "A session at this year's Pacific Northwest BI Summit served up a literal example of a vendor eating its own dog food."

Her presentation, as you might have guessed, had to do with (wo)man's best friend.

Dyché, vice president of best practices with SAS Institute, discussed her experiences as both a volunteer and an activist for digitization in a prominent municipal animal shelter system.

Her presentation was heartrending and informative. Her description of the technological backwardness of a cash- and resource-strapped municipal organization was -- as industry luminary Claudia Imhoff dryly noted -- all too characteristic of nonprofits as a whole. "They're still [using] paper processes, they don't know that they can digitize, and they don't have money," Imhoff said.

Dyché's high-level observations have salience for the average business organization as well.

As she herself put it, "the shelter experience validated so much of my business experience. If you show me how [the] leaders [in an organization] are measured, I'll show you how the company is run."

Dogs, Data, and Analytics

One of the shelters at which Dyché volunteers has one of the highest euthanasia rates in the country. This isn't surprising, she observed: "Leadership [in the shelter system] is not measured on the reduction in kill rate. They're measured on the number of dogs they get out of the system -- and that includes dead dogs. By their own [metrics] they're succeeding. Why should they change?"

Most of the shelter system's processes are still paper-based, she said. For this and other reasons, shelters aren't able to use available technologies to identify and monitor individual cases. There's no digital means to track and manage -- nor to create and maintain -- information about individual dogs. There's no concept of an individual dog's "record."

Shelters aren't able to track or manage their interactions with potential adopters, either. (There's nothing analogous to the commercial enterprise's customer journey.) Nor are shelters able to exploit the power of predictive analytics -- e.g., forecasting and scheduling-optimization analytics -- or social media analytics.

As Dyché discovered, this matters. Social media gives shelters a powerful tool to market at-risk dogs directly to would-be adopters -- if they can connect the metaphorical dots.

For example, Dyché records several videos each week in which she introduces different shelter dogs to her followers on Facebook and other sites. Her most heartrending story involves a dog named "Zulie," who (in Dyché's telling) emerges as a kind of poster-dog for digitization.

No Digital Information

"I posted a video about Zulie on Facebook and immediately it got [several thousand] views," she told attendees, noting that she received several Facebook messages in response to her video -- including from a would-be adopter who wanted to know if Zulie were spayed. Unfortunately, this information wasn't readily available via, which Dyché describes as "the most authoritative website for [information about] dogs across the country." In painful point of fact, there was little coordination between the shelter system and -- or other resources, for that matter.

Moreover, because the shelter maintained almost no digital information about the canines in its care, it took Dyché a long time to get an answer to this question -- too long, as it happens.

"I was on hold on the phone [with the shelter] for about 45 minutes -- and during the time I was on hold, Zulie was put to sleep," she said. "So I asked: 'What happened?' It turns out there was a lot of interest in adopting Zulie, but none of that information had made its way into the shelter system itself. There was no correlation between people talking on Facebook and the shelter registering that there was interest and putting notes in Zulie's 'record.' Zulie didn't even have a record.

"There's just a huge opportunity for digitization in this space," she concluded.

Data Provides Insight into Shelter Trends

Dyché collected data from a wide range of sources and used it to glean startling insights about shelter dogs. Take the question that started her on her quest: had Zulie been spayed?

She found that dogs that are spayed or neutered are typically adopted much more quickly (and at greater rates) than other dogs. Other surprising (and not-so-surprising) insights from her analysis:

  • Black dogs are euthanized at almost double the rate of all other dogs, irrespective of breed

  • The larger the dog, the longer it stays in the system -- with the exception of Chihuahuas

  • The lower the socioeconomic demographics of the area surrounding a shelter, the higher the rate at which dogs are euthanized

  • More dogs enter the shelter system in July than in any other month of the year

With regard to this last data point, Dyché found that owner-surrendered shelter admissions spike in July. The reason? Families go on vacation, can't afford to board their dogs, and surrender them at shelters. Think about it from the perspective of a low-income family: at worst, they've lost a family pet; in some cases, however, they're able to recover the dog for the cost of the adoption fee.

Because shelters are insufficiently digitized, they've no means to identify and police behavior of this kind.

Digitization Could Provide Savings, Improvements

In so many different ways, and for so many different reasons, digitization is the key, says Dyché. She crunched some data to highlight a few ways successful digitization could permit cash-strapped shelters to more effectively allocate their sparse resources.

For example, she found that one specific shelter with an annual budget of $847,000 could save $262,570 by successfully digitizing. The shelter currently spends about $254,000 (annually) processing requests for information about animals; with even modest digitization, it could reduce its staffing requirements by 20 percent and trim this cost to $108,416. (A 40 percent reduction in required staff time would cut it even further to $81,312.)

Conversely, this shelter currently spends about 8 percent of its budget networking with potential adopters and showcasing individual animals; by digitizing to reduce staffing requirements in other areas (e.g., processing requests for information), it could increase this to 24 percent. In the same vein, the shelter allocates about 4 percent of its budget to training and working directly with animals. Successful digitization (and reduction of staffing requirements in other areas) would permit it to increase this to 16 percent.

Digitization could both save money and improve the status quo, says Dyché. This is a can't-miss proposal to any company board -- or, for that matter, to a municipal board of supervisors.

"The ... county board of supervisors [is] not motivated to fix it ... but the board is motivated to save money," she said. This brings us back to the customer journey. "The companies I've been visiting lately, nothing gets their mojo back like showing them a journey map."

Ditto for executives and budgeting authorities of every kind, Dyché points out. "They love it because they get to see the before and the after. What does the customer journey look like now? What could it look like? What's the cost-savings potential? What's the loyalty potential? What's the return-to-store potential?"

The benefits might be even larger for nonprofits (which often start from a lower technology level), but all enterprises can take this case study as a lesson on the importance of using the right metrics and taking advantage of digitization.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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