Best Friends: Harnessing Data to Save Lost Cats and Dogs
Like many businesses, Best Friends Animal Society set out to apply data to achieve its mission — in its case, to lower the number of dogs and cats killed in animal shelters across the country. However, collecting the data and being able to apply it effectively proved harder than it would first seem.
“All of the data was in silos, and it was just horrible,” said CIO Angie Embree. “We couldn’t, as we can today, tell how many animals were being killed … everything was in the dark. And it was like, ‘We’ve got to get this data out into the light, and we’ve got to get it out of shelters and create this mechanism for innovation. So that we can create new ways of engaging people in the movement, and collect data to create more innovation and just keep going in that iterative mode,’” she said.
Created in 1984 as a no-kill organization, Best Friends operates a sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, where it cares for about 1,600 dogs, cats, horses, birds, rabbits, potbellied pigs, farm animals and assorted wildlife each day. It also operates facilities in Los Angeles, New York, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Houston and Rogers, Arkansas.
It announced an ambitious goal in 2016: To end the killing of healthy and adoptable animals in shelters by 2025. It reports that the number of animals killed in shelters has been reduced from 17 million from its inception to around 733,000 in 2020. In 2019 it unveiled the Pet Lifesaving Dashboard, which enables people to track the no-kill movement from the national to the local level.
It partners with more than 3,000 shelters and rescue organizations nationwide and has around 10,000 animal-related partners overall.
“We’re a nonprofit, and we don’t have a lot of money to spend on technology. We need it to go directly to our programs. And so we were in a pickle as to how we were going to accomplish this,” Embree said.
It ultimately turned to Vendia, a startup combining blockchain and serverless, as its technology was being ramped up by co-founders from Best Friends’ cloud provider AWS.
Sharing + Scale
“The platform that they’re building, or have built and continue to develop, is one that allows us to get in the game and accomplish our vision and goals without having to build the infrastructure ourselves and operate it. The operating costs for us would definitely prohibit us from entering the space,” Embree said.
At a workshop with Amazon Web Services, it learned that blockchain could be a technology to consider, but it has limitations.
When moving from her AWS blockchain leadership role to co-found Vendia, Shruthi Rao said she talked to 1,092 customers and found they weren’t using it so much for the security purposes it was designed for, but to get all their data in one place to be able to use it effectively.
Customers were saying, “‘Look, we have partners, …And we’ve invested in these data-gathering technologies, IoT, and mobile, digital transformation. And they’re making massive amounts of data. But this data is getting stuck in partners. And we don’t have access to this data, whether it’s real-time, sometimes even near real-time. Some of this data was only accessible a week later, a month later. It’s stale data. … This is applicable to Best Friends as well,” she said.
Many of these customers had invested in these data-hungry applications like artificial intelligence and machine learning analytics that need massive amounts of data to produce good intelligence. “But they only had access to a small sliver of data,” she pointed out. “This data is just getting stuck in silos.”
Vendia was designed to combine blockchain and serverless while addressing the limitations of each: blockchain, a peer-to-peer sharing platform with a fully replicated data model, but with no ability to scale, or serverless, a highly scalable service that can only operate on a single account.
“Blockchain was supposed to be this connection to multiple parties, where you have a fine-grain view and lineage of who did what, when, how and why. And that would be suitable,” Rao said. “But the traditional blockchain, when you think of that’s are out there in the wild? It’s very clunky, very expensive, a lot of capital expense that doesn’t scale really well both in terms of vertical scalability, which means the higher the throughput, it doesn’t scale well that way. And horizontal scalability when you add new participants onto the network, whether they are writers or readers doesn’t matter, the more parties you add, the worse off it gets,” she said. And for a non-profit like Best Friends, “You can’t ask all these parties to go spin up their own Kubernetes clusters, can you?”
Using the Vendia platform, Best Friends is creating a blockchain-based data network called Pet Chain, that it hopes to ultimately follow a pet throughout its lifetime, from an initial biometric identifier entered at birth — a nose print, which is as unique as a human fingerprint (the Canadian Kennel Club began accepting dog nose prints as proof of identity in 1938).
Vendia provides an immutable, fully ordered, tamperproof ledger and a replicated copy of application state in every cloud, account and region in which an application operates as well as out-of-the-box mobile and web support.
“The vision is for a blockchain network that can be contributed to by anybody in the animal welfare space — a shelter or rescue, a lost-and-found organization, a transport management system …,” said Embree.
It would create a single version of the truth about an animal throughout its lifetime, though it might have different names, and follow that animal wherever it goes. The organization ultimately hopes to include veterinary, grooming, boarding and other information as well.
“So if that animal ends up in the shelter, it’s not a blank slate — you know, a 5-year-old dog or cat has five years of history. So the shelter knows what its medical treatments have been, it knows what its behavioral issues were, it knows the lifestyle that that animal had, which is pretty important because that’s going to indicate where that animal is going to thrive,” she said.
Best Friends’ most recent project has been return to owner, an effort to reunite lost pets by linking data to Pet Chain between shelters, the myriad online lost-and-found groups and neighborhood apps such as Neighbors. It worked with an offshore shop to create the app Homefast, which it is testing in Pitt County, North Carolina, Kansas City and Abilene, Texas, though mid-May before rolling it out elsewhere.
“When pets get lost, they get picked up by a member of the public or an animal control officer. They get taken to a shelter. And then it’s up to the parent to find that animal in a shelter. It’s a very complex problem because parents often don’t know where to go to find their animal,” Embree explained.
There are a slew of lost-and-found tools out there, but they become silos of data, as do the multiple microchip databases — and Embree said only about 10 percent of animals are microchipped.
Homefast is a progressive web app. “There’s nothing to download or anything, but it behaves like an app on your phone. You just open the URL, add it to your homepage, create a login,” she said. “And if you’re an animal control officer, then you just start taking pictures, you associate yourself with your organization …log it and it actually captures the geolocation of where you found the animal because it’s super important in our line of work, because it’s usually near home, right?” The user can scan a dog tag or microchip, or just take a close-up of the pet’s nose and enter it, where an AI algorithm seeks to identify the pet.
It connects immediately to local shelters, lost-and-found tools and other local data sources, with the hope the owner will arrive at the correct shelter when the pet does.
Chinese startup Magvii also is working to apply AI to identify dog nose prints to return lost pets in a project also called PetChain.
Because rescue organizations typically rely on volunteers, who might have little or no tech expertise, ease of use was imperative for Best Friends’ app, Rao noted. And the winter storm that gripped Texas pointed out that users at some point might not have internet connectivity for a period, but still might be dealing with stray animals during a crisis. So they need the ability to input data, then upload it when connectivity is restored.
“Really the cherry on top for me is that a nonprofit with barely any specialized developers can do this in a pretty straightforward way,” Rao said. “If a nonprofit can use cutting-edge technology with minimal to no developer profile in their companies, anyone can.”