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X marks the hot spot

Using mapping technology to target your programs to the places where animals are most at risk

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2015

Location, location, location . It’s the tried-and-true mantra of those in the real estate business, but the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland (ASAP) and other groups are working with the ASPCA to learn how thinking geographically can also reduce shelter intake.

During 18 months from 2012 to mid- 2013, ASAP, an animal welfare and control coalition serving four counties in Oregon and Washington state, witnessed a 38-percent decrease in shelter intake of owned cats from a target area. A key to the alliance’s success was its use of geographic information systems (GIS) mapping.

GIS mapping displays relevant data on maps to reveal trends related to location. Simply put, it tells you what is happening where, but it’s not as straightforward as plotting a few points. GIS is complex; analysts use software and databases to produce maps with clusters of color—think of a weather radar map—that make it clear where the most cats are coming from, for example. It is used to analyze crime patterns, predict climate change and much more, but experts are just starting to explore its applications in the sheltering world.

GIS relies heavily on data collection. Any staff members who record animals’ data need to make sure they are carefully documenting information so it can be included in the data that is mapped with the GIS software.

“The power of being able to see the data is profound,” says Emily Weiss, ASPCA vice president of research and development. “It allows us to better target, better focus and better measure our impact.”

With GIS mapping, shelters can use their limited resources in areas where they will make the most impact, instead of spreading themselves too thin, adds Greg Miller, director of GIS analysis for the ASPCA.

The ASPCA started to use GIS technology after realizing an increased number of spay/neuter surgeries across an entire community did not necessarily lead to a decrease in shelter intake.

ASPCA officials acknowledged “not all spay/neuters are created equal” and thought that focusing their efforts in areas where intake was highest would lead to the best results, says Weiss.

They decided to try out their theory in communities, and that grew into the ASPCA’s X Maps Spot GIS project, funded by a PetSmart Charities grant. Through the program, groups in Cleveland, southeast Florida and Sacramento, Calif., in addition to Portland, used GIS to map their data and create targeted intervention programs.

In Portland, ASAP and the ASPCA used GIS to find a “hot spot” area that was sending high numbers of cats and pit-bull-type dogs into shelters. Then they planned an intervention to decrease intakes and increase spay/neuter rates.

The Big Picture

The ASPCA wanted to work with ASAP on this project because, as part of a successful coalition, the organizations and agencies that make up ASAP were used to working together and handling data—two necessary factors for GIS mapping.

To get the most accurate idea of the animal trouble spots in a community, you can’t just map one shelter’s data. The ASPCA recommends having a year’s worth of data for 85 percent of the animals that come into shelters in the community, but if you can’t get all the data from smaller organizations, you don’t need to have exactly that amount, Miller says.

“You just want to have the vast majority of animals coming into shelters in your community accounted for in your map, because you really could miss something” otherwise, he says.

For example, in a larger community, there are typically at least two organizations doing substantial intake—a nonprofit shelter and a municipal shelter. If each does about half of the community’s intake, and you are only mapping data from one shelter, hot spot areas for the animals most at risk in the community as a whole might not be accurate.

The process—both data collecting and the resulting intervention—requires extensive time and resources, so it’s important to gauge the dedication of the leadership of the community’s shelters from the beginning, says Miller.

“Certainly implementing an intervention later on is a different type of work than most shelters have been doing, so you’ve got to really have that commitment,” he says. “We’ve seen that that can be a struggle with all the other competing priorities.”

Cleaning Your Data

In Portland, the four primary shelters of ASAP provided the ASPCA with their 2010 intake data, which included owner addresses for surrenders and found locations for strays, as well as species, intake date, age and suspected breed. But first, ASAP had to make sure 80 percent of that data, specifically addresses, was clean.

“Clean” refers to accurate, complete data. For GIS, an address needs to be recorded as a street address or an intersection with cross streets, because “you need that level of detail to really focus, to target and have a point on a map that’s accurate enough,” says Miller.

A location like “Route 16” isn’t specific enough to tell exactly where an animal was found—and you do need to record the address where the animal was found, not the finder’s address.

Another important part of clean data is looking at the right information. For example, if juvenile cats are at risk in your community and that’s the data you want to map, be sure to properly record ages at intake.

Even though ASAP was used to dealing with data, “a fair amount” had to be cleaned initially to make it suitable to be mapped, says Anika Moje, the coalition’s project manager.

To clean data, inaccurate information or information not recorded properly needs to be removed, and if organizations don’t have the necessary 80-percent clean data after doing that, they’ll need to improve their data-collecting process before GIS mapping can be really effective.

Data collection and cleaning can be tedious, but the ASPCA stresses that every animal’s data is her voice, and without clean data, her voice and the opportunity to help her are lost.

“You’re getting all the information so that animal can be put on a map … and help us find out where risk is highest and target resources there,” says Miller. “If the data’s not clean, that animal can’t be represented on a map.”

Getting Ready to Map

Once the data is collected, you can focus your GIS mapping on specific high-risk groups.

In Portland, ASAP looked at cat and pit-bull-type dog intake. Cats have always been a major focus for the coalition shelters, and pit-bull-types are the most common dogs entering the facilities, although at low rates compared to many other places, says Moje.

On the other hand, the groups the ASPCA worked with in Cleveland, the Cleveland Animal Protective League (APL) and the Cleveland Division of Animal Care & Control, were just interested in decreasing cat and dog intake across the board, and didn’t narrow the specifics down by breed-type or age.

Finding a GIS analyst in your community could be easier than you realize—there might be one among your volunteer base, for example. Many universities also might have GIS experts available, or students who are learning about the approach. Or, if you’re working with a municipal shelter, it’s possible the city or county already has GIS software and an analyst to help you.

The point of using GIS is to obtain objective data that shows you areas of high intake. So shelters shouldn’t go in planning for the technology to tell them what they already think is true.

While each group in Cleveland may have known where their separate hot spots were, they probably wouldn’t have known the hot spot for both groups, or narrowed it down to their 1-square-mile target area, says Sharon Harvey, president and CEO of the Cleveland APL.

“I think all too often in sheltering, we do rely on gut—and instinct is very important—but to have data to back up those gut feelings, to know that we actually are investing our very limited resources to the fullest extent, is very helpful,” Harvey says.

Plan a Targeted Intervention

Once the X Maps Spot team mapped ASAP’s data, they chose a target area that was a hot spot for both cat and pit-bull-type dog intake.

ASAP decided to focus on three neighborhoods, approximately 5 square miles, and do heavy community outreach in a smaller portion of that area.

It used a door-to-door approach similar to the HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) model, which relies heavily on community outreach and relationships with pet owners to deliver pet care services in underserved communities.

With the help of a grant from the ASPCA, ASAP hired a full-time coordinator to go door-to-door to really get to know the neighborhoods. ASAP offered a variety of free services, including training classes, spay/neuter and vaccinations, and also gave out supplies, food and toys.

“I think what we learned was that in order to keep animals from entering the shelters, you really need to build that personal relationship with the pet owners,” says Moje. “And sometimes it really took a lot of extra effort to make sure the pet stays in the family.”

In Cleveland, the organizations planned a similar intervention called Project CARE (Community Animal Retention Effort), which is also based on the PFL approach.

“What we have done over time is taken that and tried to determine what parts and pieces of that are really working in our community,” says Harvey. “In my opinion, there’s no cookbook that tells how this needs to be done in every community every time.”

Track Your Progress

Different locations could require different resources, so to figure out what’s effective, keep track of your work and measure the impact, says Miller.

ASAP did “pretty intense tracking,” says Moje. The shelters tracked all parts of their intervention to see how many animals came in based on the type of outreach that had been done.

If one part of the intervention doesn’t work, don’t consider it a failure, says Weiss.

“The GIS technology helps us figure out the ‘where.’ It is then a set of experiments to determine the ‘what’” you need to do to help address it, she says.

In the case of ASAP, while owned-cat intake decreased 38 percent in the target area, there wasn’t as much of an impact on stray cats and pit-bull-type dogs. ASAP and the ASPCA say pit-bull-type intake didn’t decrease that substantially because it’s more difficult to decrease intake rates that are low to begin with, which was the case with those dogs. And keeping stray cats from entering shelters is more complex than reducing the intake of owned cats.

The Cleveland program ended in July, so at press time there was no conclusive data about its impact, but Harvey looks forward to seeing the numbers.

Shelters don’t always track their programs well to see if they’re having the intended impact, she says, but “with some pre- and post-mapping and access to data like this, we can really see if this intervention was as effective as we were hoping.”

Either way, the project has helped the Cleveland APL focus on viewing data objectively, and gave officials a more structured approach to their already strong partnership with the city animal control, Harvey says.

“I think we need to continue to do everything we can to better understand the problems that we’re facing objectively,” she says. “Where animals are coming from, why they’re coming to us, where there’s the greatest need and what programs can have the greatest impact.”

GIS can provide data-backed insight into other problems shelters face, also, so don’t stop once you’ve used it to reduce intake. For example, use it to track where your adopted animals are going, so you can increase outreach to get more people to adopt animals in areas where they aren’t.

“The power that this mapping has, I think, is tremendous,” says Weiss, “and we’re just at the start of it.”

For more resources on how to start GIS mapping in your community, visit the ASPCA’s X Maps Spot Tools for GIS page.

About the Author

Colleen Jaskot is a former staff writer for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Prior to working for The HSUS, Colleen wrote for various newspapers and news wire services while getting a journalism degree from the University of Maryland.