Animal Tech Night Report: Puppies & Kitties Edition

Over the last nine months, we’ve been using themes to guide our monthly hack nights. We’ve had guest speakers talk about democracy, media, mobility, housing, sustainability, public health, and education.

In September, we dove into the topic of animal welfare in the Houston area. This was the perfect topic for memes, for obvious reasons. Thanks to Jeff Reichman for these gems.

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Our goal for the evening was to come up with project ideas for future development. We continued the collaborative research exercise we did for August’s civic hack night on the digital divide. We split into groups and co-researched the topic in general and as it relates to Houston.

But first, we heard 5-minute talks from two local heros:

We also heard from experts from the City of Houston BARC Animal Shelter and Northside Dawgs. All of the experts joined the research groups and answered questions after the talks. Thanks to everyone for attending and sharing your knowledge!

The research groups were:

  • Exotic and farm animal rescue,
  • Shelters and animal control,
  • And an unguided, free form group, which ended up researching Wild dogs and public safety concerns.

With a quick reminder of the data resource data.ohouston.org, we started with a few research questions to kick us off:

  • How do shelter staff do background checks for animal abuse related crimes?
  • How do we educate law enforcement and the legal system about changes in policy?
  • What are some ways to remind people that exotic animals are frequently abused?

Lots of great notes and project ideas came out of this one.

Wild dogs research table

This group started with the Dangerous Dogs Registry and a couple of questions: do people know about dangerous dogs in their neighborhoods, and what can they do about it? As they learned, there’s a big need for fresh data and a model for the data. With help from a BARC officer, they also learned about the process of managing wild dogs.

Any attack, provoked or unprovoked, can potentially land a dog on the dangerous list depending on the severity of the attack. Once a dangerous dog has been identified, owners can avoid having the dog euthanized by getting $150,000 in liability coverage. They must build a kennel and 6 ft fence, with specific locks and a special “dangerous dog” sign. They’re also required to renew a license annually, which involves personal visits by animal enforcement, but a lack of manpower makes ensuring compliance difficult. Of course, owners are also required to restrain dangerous dogs when walking them. And all dangerous dogs must be spayed or neutered and microchipped.

The group came to a good list of questions and project ideas:

  • Could we implement some type of obedience class requirements? Or an education requirement for the owner?
  • Maybe, if your dog is picked up in a sweep, there could be a course that owners have to take before the animal is released to them.
  • The sweeps are still infrequent–could we prioritize sweeps based on location of 311 calls, schools, parks, and community centers?
  • Could there be a requirement to microchip dogs picked up by a sweep before release to the owner?
  • What can we do to boost awareness of the Healthy Streets, Healthy Pets program?
  • Project idea: use the 311 dataset to implement some type of progress tracking program, or identify and further track repeat offenders.

Thanks to Rachel Green for providing her notes.

Shelters and animal control research table

At the shelters and animal control table, the group covered a wide range of issues from educating people on what to do when they lose a pet to storage and sharing of shelter operations data. Lisa Rotter of the Houston SPCA served as a great subject matter expert, providing lots of details about shelter operations, relationships between animal welfare groups, and the most pressing issues facing shelter work. Here are two problems discussed and the different solutions the group came up with:

ISSUE: LOST AND FOUND PETS. Right now, staff and volunteers at many shelters dedicate a lot of time to combing Facebook for mentions of lost pets to potentially match them with animals in the shelter. This data isn’t stored in any central repository. On a related note, many shelters require in-person visits to file lost reports.

Solution: What if there was such a central lost-and-found pets site for all shelters in the Houston area? This would be different from the shelter management software used by individual shelters and could cut down on redundant work for volunteers and staff at many organizations.

This site could be updated by shelters sharing their lost pet reports, and could potentially also allow pet owners to file their own reports online. Some of the basic information could be posted publicly while more private details would be accessible by the shelter professionals. We’d also love to see some integration with shelter management software so that it’s easy to post newly found pets at the same time the shelter does their intake.

We were surprised to learn that in Lisa’s estimate, probably only around 1% of the pets that come through SPCA’s doors actually have owners–the large majority are feral or abandoned.

ISSUE: TARGETING PET OWNER EDUCATION. Increasingly, shelters have moved to a more proactive strategy in dealing with the growing number of strays and feral animals, doing public outreach and education around spay/neutering and responsible pet ownership. But Houston is large and there are a lot of different cultures and communities. Where should shelters start?

Solution: mapping where the majority of animals are coming to the shelter from! SPCA tracks the zip codes where animals are picked up, so a data project could help them identify areas where education could have the biggest positive effect. Moving into the education phase, a related project could also sort through ASPCA’s shelter animal research, which focuses on the behavior of adopters and owners, to find best practices around pet owner education.

Exotic animals and horses research table

With help from Monica Schmidt of the Houston Humane Society, the group learned that there is no registration process for owning an exotic animal or horse in Texas. We don’t know how many are out there, and we need that data.

The conversation led to talk about efficiency. HHS covers the entire contract for their constables so they spend 100% of their time on animal calls. Constables spend a lot of this time chasing down reports of horses with inadequate care or space. If they could implement ways to make their time more efficient, they’d save a lot of time and money.

Project ideas included:

  • anonymous donation line, like a gun buyback program for exotics
  • SEO war to educate people about the expense and non-glamourous side of owning an exotic animal
  • aerial photography drones that can see and count horses and correlate to plot size to determine “in-danger properties”, saving constables lots of time tracking down reports of neglect

Thanks to Bryan Lee and Chris Sica for providing their notes.

Looking forward

If you’re interested in starting or discussing any of the project ideas or questions above, feel free to suggest a new project on Github or join the conversation in Slack.

Our goal for the next monthly hack night is to have an easy system for capturing all of the notes so we can quickly share them on the blog. Like last time, we had a lot of fun exploring a complicated topic from multiple angles.

We are so excited about next month’s civic hack night. It’s about criminal justice, and we are packing it with experts and specific research questions. Have an idea for it? Reach out. Please RSVP here, and bring a friend. No justice, no peace.

And don’t forget, if you’re looking for a chill few hours of coworking with snacks and a great view of downtown Houston, be sure to check out our weekly Tuesday hack nights, 5-8 pm at the Leonel Castillo Center. It’s the Northside location of Neighborhood Centers, our wonderful location partner.

Many thanks to Austin Coding Academy for sponsoring the September hack night! Despite the name, they are in Houston and several other Texas cities. Check them out if you’re considering coding classes.

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