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Connecting pets and their humans: How Best Friends Animal Society uses data sharing to connect pets to their human families, faster

Angela Embree, retired CIO of Best Friends Animal Society, talks about the lifesaving power of data sharing across thousands of shelters.

Alexa Johnson
Head of Content Strategy

Last updated: November 23, 2022

Connecting pets and their humans: How Best Friends Animal Society uses data sharing to connect pets to their human families, faster

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Guest: Angela Embree, retired CIO of Best Friends Animal Society

Angela Embree talks with host Tim Zonca about data sharing across animal care providers and shelters. They explore the complex challenges of sharing data across thousands of organizations, and how better data sharing can drastically reduce euthanasia and connect pets to their humans faster.

Show Notes

Transcript

Tim Zonca 0:05

Greetings from the team at Vendia. And welcome to Circles of Trust, a podcast for leaders across all industries committed to speeding up innovation at scale. I'm your host, Tim Zonca. We're about to dive into a conversation with Angela Embree, the former CIO of Best Friends Animal Society. In this episode, we explore the complex challenges of sharing data across thousands of organizations like animal care providers and shelters and how better data sharing can help connect pets to their humans faster. So, let's jump in. Angela, welcome to the show. It's great to have you here!

Angela Emree 0:35

Thank you. It's nice to be here.

Tim Zonca 0:37

So tell us a little bit about your background, including what brought you to Best Friends Animal Society when you first joined. And then, just a little bit more broadly, I'd love to hear about your connection to animals. What kind of pets do you have in your family, if you have any? But yeah, start with your background, in general, and what brought you to best friends.

Angela Emree 0:56

Well, I have been a technologist for a very long time and was getting frustrated with the position I had, which was in higher education. And I was ready to move on to the next level. And all the time, I'll blend this in, the whole story: I was working in technology; I was fostering, adopting, donating for animals to nonprofits. So, you know, it was my personal passion. And I had been to Best Friends on vacation with my partner, Bob, and one day, a former colleague of mine emailed me and said, "I have the perfect job for you." And it was the Best Friends CIO position. So, I put in my application and got a message back from the recruiting team that they had an offer out to somebody. And I was so disappointed because I knew I was meant for this position. But within two weeks, they contacted me again and put me through the interviewing process. I was back out at the sanctuary interviewing with the founders and other executives at Best Friends. And they offered me the job, and the rest is history. But it really was my connection with the animals and my technology experience. And that opportunity to combine that personal passion with the career really excited me — and knowing I would be there to help. And I was going to be the first CIO at Best Friends.

Tim Zonca 2:59

Oh. Okay, that's interesting, yeah.

Angela Emree 3:05

(laughs) I knew it was gonna be a lot of building, and I love building. So it was just like it was made for me.

Tim Zonca 3:11

That's great. Do you have pets now?

Angela Emree 3:15

I do. I have four rescue dogs. And I'm surprised not one of them is in the room with us right now.

Tim Zonca 3:22

(chuckles)

Angela Emree 3:23

The one who can't leave my side is training. But we have three Standard Poodles and a Great Pyrenees mix. And there are three boys and a girl of all ages. And you know, the Standard Poodles...people think you can't find purebred dogs in rescue or in shelters. But two of them came from rescue, and the other was actually a Best Friend's dog.

Tim Zonca 3:50

Oh, cool!

Angela Emree 3:52

So you can't find those animals. I've had dogs all my life. I'm a dog person.

Tim Zonca 3:56

Yeah. Same here. And usually, I'm sure, at some point, our dog Reina will come in here. She remembers that I'm home when she hears me. And also, it's like, "Oh, yay, you're here. Let me get a little pet in and what not." So we may both have that happening today.

Yeah, I do like cats as well. I have to say that. But I'm allergic to them, so we have no cats in our household.

So tell me a little bit about when you were at Best Friends Animal Society. What were the top organizational priorities, especially when you went into what was a brand new role? And, yeah, what were the priorities, and what was your team doing to help support those?

Angela Emree 4:37

Yeah, so, when I got there, it was a very immature technology team, I mean from a capabilities perspective. And I sat down and I looked at what we had and, you know, built a list of things that we needed to build. And I would say the number one thing where our capability was really low was in data. And as we all know, data is the future. Data is informing everything. And without that capability, Best Friends was behind. Not necessarily behind in animal welfare, because they were a leader there. But still, from a strategic perspective, needing to shore up things and head in the right direction.

Tim Zonca 5:51

And tell us a little bit about what kind of data, where you're talking about the importance of data. What was the sort of data that was important to you, important to Best Friends Animal Society at that point in time? How was it being collected? What did you see as some of the immaturity that you wanted to, then, bring some additional, whatever it was process/maturity/discipline to?

Angela Emree 6:15

Well, there wasn't much data being collected. And the data that they were looking for is data about animals in shelters. Best Friends has a huge goal to bring the nation "no kill" by the year 2025, by the end of that year. And, you know, without being able to measure where they're at, within that goal, how do you know if you're successful or not? So it was really data about animals that were in shelters and the outcomes for those animals. Were they being killed? Did they die in care? Were they adopted? Were they transferred out to another facility? Things like that. So that was kind of the number one priority — getting the data about those animals and what Best Friends was doing — was kind of asking each of the thousands of shelters and rescues across the United States to send them data via spreadsheet or some other means (manual entry, whatever) where they could get it. And when I first got there, most shelters, especially if they were killing animals, were reluctant to send that data. They would not. They would refuse. So there's a lot of politics going on in animal welfare. Nobody wants to look like the bad guy, especially when they're overwhelmed by the number of animals that they have in their care. And so data sharing was not common at all. And so...there was a huge gap in what we knew. And we had to build the relationships and build the technology to make it easy because the people who work in shelters don't have a lot of time to spend on this. And [we had to] find the technology that would make it easier for Best Friends to collect the data, basically,

Tim Zonca 8:40

You'd mentioned shelters/rescues. Are there any other organization types that Best Friends Animal Society works with?

Angela Emree 8:51

They work with anybody associated with animal welfare.

Tim Zonca 8:58

With, like, veterinary clinics and stuff like that?

Angela Emree 9:01

Yeah. Access to care is a big issue. And there are not enough veterinarians in shelters. I mean, there is a specific veterinary discipline, which is shelter medicine. And so, you know, Best Friends is kind of everywhere, making sure the animals are getting the best treatment to ensure a life outcome.

Tim Zonca 9:29

So, tell me about...I can't imagine having thousands of organizations sending information in their own, you know, spreadsheets, emails, documents. When you first got there, how was that consumed and kind of normalized or rationalized?

Angela Emree 9:50

That's, well, a simple way to put it. Again, it was spreadsheets. It was a person on the other side, you know, compiling all this data in spreadsheets. And again, it wasn't too overwhelming at the beginning because not enough organizations were sharing their data. There was a little bit of automation in a system that we had. But again, it was not an ideal situation. It was hour's and hours' and hours' and hours' worth of work to consume that data. And quite frankly, you know, we were about a year behind knowing what the current numbers were.

Tim Zonca 10:34

Oh, okay. Yeah. So then what about, you know, you had at least to me, you know, reading about some of the work you did there, and knowing some of the folks that were close to some of the work you did there, you had a really impressive vision. So tell us about the vision you had around better data collection and sharing. What else spawned it besides just, "Holy cow? We can't have people sifting through spreadsheets"? Can you paint a picture of that?

Angela Emree 11:07

Well, I mean, it was the whole animal welfare picture, I guess. That's what I took a look at and said, "You know, we, as an industry (for lack of a better word), we could do this much better. And as the attitudes started to change within those shelters and other organizations, they began to say, "It's okay to share our data." You know, it opened up this whole opportunity to, not only share data, but interconnect data. So there were so many problems that an interconnected system could solve. Not only Best Friends's problem of needing to know what the kill rates were in shelters across the country, but returned to owner, which is, you know, somebody loses their pet. And one-third of pets go missing in their lifetime. How do they get that pet back? How do they know where that pet has ended up? There are so many disparate tools out there that don't talk to each other. Your pet could end up in shelter A, and you're looking at shelter B. And, you know, if you don't know your pet's in shelter A, you're never going to find your pet. Right?So, you know, that was another issue that needed to be solved. And another issue would be like the, as I mentioned earlier, show people who work in shelters are so, so busy. But every animal that comes into them is a blank slate, and it shouldn't be. They should be able to get data about that animal to know its medical history, its behavioral history, all of those other things, so that they're not starting from zero every time an animal comes in. And if a pet is five years old, they have five years of data on that animal. So, I mean, looking at all these problems and understanding...being a technologist and understanding what data could do for us, it was easy to see that an interconnected network of data sharing would benefit everybody in the industry. And furthermore, I had been working with every shelter...just about every shelter or rescue has what's called a shelter management system. And I had been working with those vendors and bringing them together to have conversations to figure out easier ways to do it. And, you know, if we could just connect with them, as opposed to having each shelter do a manual entry or send a spreadsheet or whatever, we could really make the process efficient.

Tim Zonca 14:23

Was that your primary way to, you know, build out the interconnected pet chain? Or was to go through that, or did you still reach out to shelters?

Angela Emree 14:35

Well, we did both. I mean, it was conversations with shelters because, ultimately, they have to approve the data being sent via their shelter management system. But it was, you know, from a technical perspective, it really made sense to get the shelter management systems on board because they also had influence over the shelters that they were working with.

Tim Zonca 15:04

I'd love to dig into this more because I find...so as I work with organizations that, even if they are large organizations, and you know it's an airline or it's a lender or an auto manufacturer or what have you, they have some of the same sorts of data sharing problems that you just articulated. They're not tracking pets, they might be tracking car parts or mortgages or what have you. But the amount of partners or companies or organizations that they want to connect is so much more finite. In some cases, you know, I'm talking to people who are like, "Hey, we have our top tier partners — we have 10 of them, and then we just need to connect 20 more, and this will be a raving success." It seems so daunting to think about thousands, especially when you have a category of shelters/rescues. Then, at least, it seems like if you were working with a vendor, you have like a smaller nexus there.

Angela Emree 16:01

Exactly.

Tim Zonca 16:02

Tell us about...how did you approach that? What was your role in those conversations? How different were the conversations where you're talking to, let's say a shelter or rescue compared to the vendor? Who on your team was helping drive those four? That seems like just a gnarly mess.

Angela Emree 16:18

Yeah, it was! Well, what I ended up doing was I created a Technology Thought Leadership Summit, which vendors and shelters were invited to. And really, you know, made it a shared idea, as opposed to just my idea. And that, you know, that obviously helps get more buy-in — and you get buy-in with some of the bigger, more influential shelters. And, you know, there's the influence factor. So the vendors and peer organizations have that influence over some of the other organizations. So through this Technology Summit, which we had annually. We started at the basics, and then moved the idea forward from there. We built a committee to define data standards, which everyone could agree upon. And again, it was vendors and shelters, not just Best Friends sitting down and doing this in a silo. It was really a collaborative effort to get that data standard moving forward. And everybody agreed it was needed. It was just nobody had ever made it a priority before, or said, "We're going to do this" and put that stake in the ground and got things started. So you know, that was basically, it was just iteratively, just keeping things going and bringing more and more people on board, as we went along.

Tim Zonca 18:01

And then I also assume. if you have some larger shelters/smaller organizations, you have just a pretty massive discrepancy insofar as their technical chops and even staffing. So how did you? How did you think about getting buy-in even if someone said, "Hey, this data model looks great. And we love this idea, but, you know, we're five people and we don't have an IT team." How did you overcome that adoption or buying hurdle from that perspective?

Angela Emree 18:33

Again, it was a shelter management systems. They make it easy for their customers to do it. So it's the push of a button, as opposed to the compilation of a big spreadsheet. And just about everybody can push a button. So it was really working through the shelter management systems, who are pretty awesome and understand their customers very, very well.

Tim Zonca 19:05

That makes sense. So what about...what are some of the complexities of just sharing pet data? Like, you know, privacy concerns? Or is it a shared data model that people agree on? I'd love to hear some of just the complexities of that.

Angela Emree 19:24

Yeah. Well, the ultimate solution we came up with was, you know, to build this blockchain network. And define the data standards. We called it at the time pet chain, I think it's been rebranded because chains aren't really a good thing in animal welfare, even though they were amazing in technology. So we came up with this blockchain network, and I actually just forgot the question. (chuckles)

Tim Zonca 19:57

I'm just curious about some of the complexities that, maybe, you didn't anticipate or what's privacy like from a pet data perspective or just other logistics?

Angela Emree 20:14

Yeah. So going back to the blockchain network that we defined, we set forth with the idea that there would be no human data/people data in the blockchain, and the blockchain would be pet-centric so that we could get around those, you know, so that there wouldn't be privacy issues. Legal was very concerned about that. And, of course, as a technologist, we completely understood the risks and wanted to keep the people data out. So from a privacy perspective, just having it pet-centric made a whole lot of sense and made our jobs a heck of a lot easier. So yeah, that was where I was going when I forgot the question.

Tim Zonca 21:06

That makes sense. I'd love to hear what you think about, especially from folks sending spreadsheets over, if you could get them to share the data. That's one of the things I wanted to dig into first — before I come back to this. The question where I was going is, you had mentioned a little bit at the onset around the difficulty of getting some of the organizations to share data, especially around kill data, where there was a hesitancy. And then a little bit later on, you said, and then they started doing that, like, what was the gap or what happened (for at least some of the organizations) to make them feel more comfortable sharing some of that information?

Angela Emree 21:52

Well, I think Best Friends did an amazing job of working with those shelters and communicating the idea that, you know, we're not out to vilify anyone. ...Here we go. We have a dog. This is Topper. Anyway, they [Best Friends] weren't out to vilify anybody, they just needed data. And the other thing that they were doing simultaneously is embedding people in shelters. So like, the highest kill shelter in the United States was down in McAllen, Texas area and Edinburg. And, you know, Best Friends just worked with them, and talked to them and said, "Hey, you're budget strapped? What if we provide and pay for your Executive Director?" You know, they needed a new Executive Director and they were like, "Okay, we're gonna give this a go." So, through that project... Here we go, we got another [dog] in here now... Now, through that project, which was a few years of having embedded staff on the ground down there in Edinburg, Texas, they took that shelter to No Kill. And it was like, I can't remember exactly, but they had like a 30% save rate, which means 70% of the animals were dying in the shelter. And within a couple years, they were above 90% [save rate]. So, doing things like that proves that it can be done, and helps to change attitudes out there. So, you know, having that impact for the animals — and proving it — it was really important.

Tim Zonca 23:52

Yeah, that's an amazing change. So tell me about, when you think back on your time there, what were you most proud of that you and the team accomplished?

Angela Emree 24:07

I would say the thing I am most proud of is what we are talking about because it was such a huge effort and had the biggest potential to really improve so many aspects of animal welfare that I was extremely proud of that. And, you know, some of the outcomes of what we did were...you know, I was a Woman of the Month in technology by SiliconANGLE in talking about this project. And Best Friends was selected as one of the top organizations internationally in their use of data, innovative use of data, and, you know, just so many other things like that. So this entire project gave me a real sense of pride over having kind of launched a lot of it.

Tim Zonca 25:28

That's great! And so, now that you've retired and you've kind of stepped away from at least day-to-day operational management of technology at Best Friends, you get to see the organization from a different vantage point. If you had, you know, a magic wand that could unlock something in sharing data or technology for Best Friends and the organizations that it serves, let's say over the next year or two, what would that be?

Angela Emree 26:00

Well, you know, all of these organizations are nonprofit. So it would I think, and technology has always been a nice-to-have in a lot of cases as opposed to a must-have. So it'd be really, the magic wand would be to get them the funding that they need to really delve into this because you can't, with what they have, you can't save a life and at the same time, invest in technology when your budget is so low. So to really have the funding to make everybody capable of being a part of the thing that is really important to their future, which is data.

Tim Zonca 27:00

Thank you. Thanks. That's...it's great. I think that's the last thing that I wanted to cover. So I just want to thank you, thanks for sharing your history and your time here. And especially I loved hearing the details of the before and after, as you kind of came in and where you left the organization. It's really just tremendous. So as we wrap things up, just thanks to our guests, Angela Embree for all the real talk on real-time data sharing. And thanks to all of you too, for listening in. For those of you listening, if you want to learn more about Best Friends Animal Society or any of the organizations, products, or research that we've mentioned in any of our episodes, visit vendia.com/podcast for all the links and we will have some links to some of the things that Angela mentioned. When you're ready to keep the conversation going, you could download or stream all of our episodes on Spotify, Apple Music, any of the top streaming services. If you have a point of view on the challenges or power and potential of real-time data sharing and you want to be a guest on the show, just DM us at vendiaHQ on Twitter and mention Circles of Trust. And thanks again for joining us. Thanks again to you, Angela. If you'd like what you hear for those of you out there, drop us a few stars and a review on Circles of Trust or share it with your colleagues, your network. And until next time. Thanks, everyone. And thanks, Angela.

Angela Emree 28:22

Thank you!

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