Pure Genius

Saving lives at shelters through crowdsourcing, innovation

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An ASPCA contest inspires shelters to use iPads, social media, old-fashioned sleuthing and animal relocation to save the lives of cats and dogs.

The cash prize in the ASPCA’s (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) $100K Challenge is nothing to turn a nose up at—whether it’s a the nose of a Spaniel or a Siamese. But the real grand prize has nothing to do with money: It’s all about the lives saved.

For the second year, the ASPCA is challenging shelters to save as many lives as possible during a three-month period—specifically, to save at least 300 more animals than they did during the same period in 2010. The shelter with the biggest increase in lives saved will win the grant, which must be used toward saving more lives. During last year’s contest, shelters saved nearly 49,000 animals, an increase of 7,400 over that period in 2009. More than 3,000 lives were saved in the first week of this year’s contest.

ASPCA Community Outreach Vice President Bert Troughton says the contest inspires innovation and that shelters are working harder and smarter at saving lives—from using iPads to streamline the adoption process to transporting dogs between shelters. I talked with Troughton last week.

Humane Society of Boulder Valley 2010 Challenge-- Photo Wall and Total Lives Saved

I’m a fan of any innovation that will save lives.

Me too. The idea behind the contest is a kind of crowdsourcing endeavor: Get a bunch of people competing against each other, and it inspires friendly competition and they end up with some innovative ideas.

What are some of the innovations from the 2010 contest?

Fee-waived adoption. Shelters generally charge an adoption fee, and part of that is to recoup some of the expenses for caring of the animals. Plus, there’s been an idea for a long time that people value what they pay for. But sadly, you can get a cat for free pretty much anywhere in our country. So some of the shelters got rid of that marketplace competition, and people could get a spayed/neutered cat of their choosing for free, and help save a life at the same time.

One approach that a number of organizations used is the concept of transferring the animals to other partner agencies that could help get the animals adopted. Some are located in areas where there is a tremendous surplus of animals. Down South, for example, it’s pretty easy to get lovely Labradors and hound dogs. There are not as many of them in the Northeast and on the coast.

A little shelter in Washington State transferred a number of animals into their shelter because they figured out a way to streamline the process. They were the smallest organization in the challenge, and they came in second place. They are able to pull animals from more than 10 area shelters in the Northwest.

Some of the other innovations involved technology. This year the challenge started with a qualifying heat of 114, which was an online vote that narrowed it down to 50. The shelters heavily used Facebook and other social media to get out the vote and used an opt-in so they’ve captured a cadre of local supporters who can now help them by saving lives with adoptions and donations.

Last year’s winner was the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. They introduced the use of iPads for their adoption counselors . They are tremendously busy, and their staff and volunteers were always running back and forth to get paperwork. So they got a local businessperson to donate iPads so the counselors had all the information right at their fingertips. It was one-stop shopping. It really reduced the amount of time other people had to wait. They’ve continued the practice.

Humane Society of Boulder Valley 2010 Challenge - Adoption Counselors Using iPads

How do the shelters keep you posed on the lives saved during the contest?

Every month we collect some of the most sophisticated data that anyone in the field is collecting. We have a database set up and they submit it online. We’re really careful that we’re saving these lives. There’s lot of checks and balances.

Last year the organizations used mostly a low-tech way to let people know how many lives they were saving—they’d hang a banner in their lobby or create a “thermometer” that shows numbers. This year at least one contestant that has a running ticker on their website and it changes every time an animal goes home.

For the kickoff weekend this year, we also had a lot of contestants running interesting and fun adoption promotions. They did 24-hour events, pajama parties. Part of that kickoff was a live Twitter feed, and you could tune in during the weekend to see a running report of who just went home and how many people are standing in line.

Is the field generally behind the curve in collecting and reporting the type of data you’re now gathering?

Yeah. There’s no national process. So part of the objective of this contest is to help shelters focus on collecting data that will most inform them on their populations and how to best serve the particular animals.

At the end of the challenge last year we asked them if they’d be willing to continue submitting data, and more than half are continuing to do it.

How do you use this data?

The ASPCA is a national organization. Since there is no governing body in this field, we see it as a priority to use our scientists to make sense of the data so we can see the nature of the problem, how it differs from state to state and region to region. You have to know the problems before you try to solve them.

We’re coming up on 12 months of initiatives to facilitate relocation of pets. There’s an online mechanism where folks who have too many animals can easily get in touch with folks who need animals, so we can move animals from where they’re less likely to be adopted to where they’re more likely to be adopted.

And what’s the return-to-owner piece?

There’s lot of stray and lost pets. So when a lost pet is returned to its owner, we count it as a life saved. It’s funny to think about this as innovation, but contestants are using volunteers to do piecemeal research and sleuthing—Craigslist, local websites, trying to match that up with identifying marks from animals that have come into the shelter. It’s a smart use of volunteers. Cats in particular--especially if it’s an indoor-outdoor cat, sometimes you don’t even realize for the first few days the cat is missing, and the trail gets cold after a few days.

So the winner is the shelter that saves the most lives.

Everyone’s the winner here. But the grand prize goes to the one that saves the most compared to last year. They have to invest the $100,000 in saving more lives. Last year Boulder Valley put the it toward their adoption program. They upgraded their phone system because they had such public outcry about how long it took to reach a human.

Photos: ASPCA

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure