A lucky dog and what he showed about doing good with data

Jasper the dog’s story, in which luck turned from bad to good, was a clear-cut case of doing good with data.

He was found along a road in a rural part of Southern California dragging his back half in the dust. He’d been injured. Someone brought him to a shelter — which is where his luck might have turned very bad. He could have spent a short stint on pain meds as he waited for adoption, then a quick shot of pentobarbital.

Jill Dyché told the story at the recent Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit in her presentation on doing good with data — which arose from her work with Los Angeles-area dog shelters. By day, she is SAS vice president of best practices and at other times she is an advocate for modern data practices to improve dog rescue.

Bad KPIs

You can imagine how a shelter manager would figure Jasper’s fate, based on no data but impressions over years running barebones operations: He couldn’t walk, he wasn’t photogenic, and he had a high risk of post-traumatic stress. To those sad KPIs, the manager would add the cost of patience: He occupied scarce cubic yards of kennel space, ate a cup of food twice a day, drank precious California water, and required a friendly pat once or twice a day. Even so, the dog was in a “great mood,” as Jill described him. The shelter gave him a break.

Real luck struck, though, when Jill did a video of him, one of many she’s done since 2014 and posted on Facebook. Jill sits on the grass with a dog extolling the dog’s playful friendliness, high IQ, and good looks. Why bother? Because videotaped dogs get adopted far more often than those who don’t — contrary to belief in the shelter community. She has data to prove it.

Good attracts more good

Does the cool-eyed business community care about doing good with data? Apparently it does. Several of the assembled two dozen data-industry experts chimed in with stories of the appeal. Chris Twogood, vice president of marketing at Teradata, told how several candidates for a high level position wanted to know about the company’s program. Josh Good, director of product marketing at Qlik, told how Qlik people donate their data skills for good causes. Others had similar stories.

The rough and tumble of doing good

Jill broadened out from dog rescue to find other ways organizations were doing good with data. She found four main categories — with examples of doing good that are not as clear-cut as Jasper.

• Organizations have been using data to rethink old problems, such as declining fisheries. The Sustainable Fisheries Group, based at University of California Santa Barbara, aided by Stanford ChangeLabs and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, hopes to help thousands of small fish harvesters to improve their practices. As wild salmon stocks decline, for example, these business people can get help finding other fish to harvest as salmon take a rest.

• Give one, get one. Buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes and another pair goes to someone in need of shoes who can’t afford them. Smile-Squared gives toothbrushes away. Soapbox, selling “soap that matters,” uses analytics to monitor its suppliers as it gives away bacteria-fighting soap around the U.S and the world.

• Profit for good. Elon Musk, though a villain to some, supports open data, such as data in support of solar power. On the other hand, there’s Indian gaming and its benefits for about as many people as can crowd around a craps table.

• Government — for me the most interesting. This is where the rough and tumble of city politics really puts “good” to the test. The nascent “smart cities” movement, which puts networked sensor data to work on city priorities, forces tricky questions: What exactly are the priorities and, having decided them, what data do we look at? Traffic flow? Sustainability? Neighborhood sociability and good restaurants? In my own favorite and unfavorite city, Berkeley CA, they say the hell with good traffic flow. Let’s have good food! I’m all for that except when I’m driving across town.

It’s all so complicated. Our love for Jasper and the goodness he means to us is so much easier than the “good” of most other things. Still, we have no choice but to try. As I think I’ve heard Jill say, one dog at a time.

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