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A black Labrador mix with a gray muzzle on a Best Friends orange and white leash

Mapping Made Easy: Using Data to Find Your Problems

Written by: Scott Giacoppo NACA Board Member and National Shelter Liaison Director for Best Friends Animal Society and Jason Smith of HLP Chameleon Software

Too much to do and never enough time to do it all. How many times have you thought this to yourself? If you’re like the rest of us, you probably say this daily. All of us in the field face an unending call log, with everything listed as a priority; dogs running at large chasing down school children, wildlife getting themselves stuck in some precarious situation, and the stream of other calls that always seem to start with “we need you here now!” It just never seems to end. What if you could predict where problems are going to pop up and address them before they become priorities? Well you can through the collection and use of data, which is most likely already at your fingertips.

In one way or another, we all capture and report out some data. Whether it’s just the numbers of calls we respond to or the number of animals we take in, almost every animal control agency tracks some sort of data. But what do we do with it once we capture it? Most agencies just file it away until someone asks for it and this is where a lot of us are missing a huge opportunity. Many agencies like San Antonio Texas Animal Care Services, Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington DC and Pima Animal Care Center in Pima County Arizona, to name a few, are using data to determine where resources are needed most and dispatching field staff to those neighborhoods to address issues before they become “problems”.  They analyze the data they collect, determine where the “hotspots” are, and devise strategies to combat those issues where they are happening the most, thus reducing the number of instances through proactive problem solving and community outreach efforts.

Some shelter software packages like Chameleon can analyze data and create a map for you. For those without a software package, there are ways to create your own “heat map” showing you where to focus attention and limited resources. Knowing what data to collect is equally as important as what to do with it once you have it. The key is to gather and store as much detailed information as possible on each situation. Exact addresses including; zip codes, animal’s names, rabies tag numbers, microchip numbers, owner’s names, and even political wards or districts can be useful to show elected officials the problems they have in the areas they represent. Types of calls broken down as specific as possible; instead of “cruelty” list the allegation in a separate field like abandonment, animal fighting etc. so that a search can be done for specific violations via that individual field. This will enable you to identify where specific crimes are being committed in your jurisdiction.

All of this, and much more needs to be gathered and entered into your database to effectively do our jobs.  Once you have your data stored, follow these simple steps provided by Jason Smith of HLP Inc Chameleon Software and start knowing your community like never before!

Mapping, the technical side …

In order to generate a usable map, you need to have collected the right data, as well as be able to extrapolate it through a service. At a minimum, no one can map data without at least a street number, street name and city/state or zip code. For example, 123 Main St. Tucson, AZ or 123 Main St. 85737 will map beautifully. 123 Main St. will not. The key is ensuring that mapping services can isolate a single address (from every address on the planet) based on the data provided.

After ensuring that you are collecting the right data, you need to ensure it is being collected in a usable format.  If you are using a sheltering software like Chameleon Software, which can pull the data directly and in real time, you will not need to dictate a format as the data entry protocols have done that already.  If you maintain the data manually, you will need to ensure it is done so in a format that can be easily utilized by a mapping service.  For our purposes, we will use Microsoft Excel and Google Earth Pro as the data collection and mapping services.  If you are using a service other than Google Earth (such as an in house GIS department or other mapping service) be sure to check their reference materials for the required format.  In the event you have latitude and longitude information instead of addresses, you can use these but will need to follow the steps below, first for latitude/longitude and again with address data in separate files.

Screen shot of a spreadsheetWhen you are ready to map the collected data, save it in a comma delimited CSV format (a format option when saving an excel file).  Open Google Earth Pro and select “file” and then “import”.  Google will ask you some questions and show a preview of data in the excel sheet.  If you have labeled your headers properly, all the default settings should be accurate.  You can choose colors and icon markers at this point, or accept all the defaults to get straight to the map.  More detailed instructions on importing excel data into Google Earth can be found at google.com/earth/outreach/learn/.

Be sure to look for points on the map plotted somewhere off the western coast of Africa.  These are points being plotted at latitude 0 and longitude 0 (which is code for “that address doesn’t exist”).  You can go back and adjust your excel sheet, fixing bad addresses and re-importing the data.

Google has hundreds of tools for making your map rich with information and fancy.  You can create overlays, color code markers, add images to data points and much more…  Check out Google Earth tutorials to learn more and get even more from your data.

Whether you have a software package or are utilizing an in house data tracking system, you already have the foundation in place to begin utilizing your data to make your job easier.  Taking a little time to assure you and your team are collecting the relevant data and entering it correctly will allow you the ability to shift from running from call to call to building relationships in key areas to prevent those calls from coming into dispatch in the first place.  Utilizing data to devise strategies for proactive problem solving and community outreach efforts is another way today’s animal control officers are working smarter.