Stray dogs and homeless cats may not be a data problem, per se, but there could be a data-driven solution to keeping them off the street.
Animal service officials in Dallas are convinced that metrics matter. Their facility can hold 474 dogs and 171 cats and is almost always full. In fiscal year 2015-16 more than 28,000 animals went through the system.
To give council members and citizens a better grasp of these numbers, Dallas recently added animal service metrics to its open data portal. The city wants citizens to be able to track how many calls come into animal control (4,300 in November), why animals come in and what happens to them.
Dallas launched its effort by posting “field data” — information related to animal control. “People can see the breakdown of what we get calls about and how we respond,” said Gabrielle Vannini, spokesperson for animal services. “You can see if it was an aggressive animal, a dog bite, a loose stray, an injured animal, a neglect case, a noise issue.”
Visitors to the portal will also be able to see how the agency responded, what it did with the animal, what interaction it may have had with any owner involved.
“We are really working on transparency,” Vannini said. “We can say we want to make the city a safer place. But by us producing the data, people can see exactly what that means. Today we brought in 34 dogs. When you called us, here is how we responded.”
Austin, Texas, began posting animal data partly to help people better understand its unique approach to animal issues. As the largest no-kill municipality in the nation, Austin faces an especially complex burden in managing its animal population.
Officials began by posting dog-bite incidents online, and then converted those into a map. They have steadily built up a base of information detailing activities around the roughly 18,000 animals the city handles each year.
“On a daily or weekly basis, members of the public can see whether their own lost animal has entered the shelter, and they can also know how many animals are coming in and leaving, if they were adopted or went into foster care, or were transferred to another animal rescue,” said Patricia Fraga, spokesperson for the city of Austin. “We want to keep that information on the forefront of the community’s minds so everyone can know how the no-kill movement is going."
The data is more than merely informative. By publishing the numbers, animal service leaders have found they are better able to control the situation.
“We have had multiple instances of regular citizens using this data to create their own mobile apps either to help people adopt a pet or find a lost pet,” Fraga said. “The more apps that are out there, the less time animals will spend in the shelter.”
The data also has been used internally to build smarter policies around animal control. “By tracking the data on where the animals come from, we have seen that there are three ZIP codes where the number of stray dogs is three times higher than in other areas,” Fraga said. “So in February, the city will do a focused outreach and education effort in those areas.”
In Dallas, officials say the integration of data into the public portal will help smooth out a transitional period.
The city recently put Animal Services under the aegis of the police department, placing two police commanders at the head of the agency. “As we make this transition, as the leadership is changing, we want to be able to demonstrate that what we are doing is working,” Vannini said. “If we are implementing new policies, we want to show that those are making a difference.”
The data release also could help with a problem in public perception. Some citizens have in the past voiced concerns that city animal shelters have a high euthanasia rate. Data could help alleviate such concerns. At present, 69.5 percent of animals leave the system alive — adopted or returned home, typically. That is up from 59 percent a year ago.
Bringing the animal data live required a bit of finesse, since calls to animal control can contain names, phone numbers, addresses and other sensitive data. “We needed to make sure we were not producing anything that would give away personal information about a location or about a person who surrendered a dog,” Vannini said.
Right now records are edited manually, she said, but the city is looking into implementing forms that would automatically clean up data for public consumption.
The database is not complete: It still needs to be populated with more detail about what happens to dogs and cats once they are in the system, something that is expected to happen in the coming months.
“At that point, the data will list the outcome of every single animal that comes through here, where they went and why did it happen," Vannini said. "It will give us total transparency.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.