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Bit by Bit: Connecting People for Animal Rescue

By Matt Linton

matt_6474.JPG"Does anyone know....?”  Three little words with BIG impact!   When I began volunteering for Mickaboo in 2005, the most commonly uttered phrase on our email list for coordinators was "Does anyone know."  Often followed by "Where this bird is" or "Who this person is" or "Whether this person took the class". We'd matured as a rescue from our humble beginnings in 1998 and now required an educational class, home visit, and phone screen for any potential adopter or foster parent volunteer, AND diligence on the part of the adoption coordinators to keep all of that together.  However, our technology was still stuck in 1998!  A set of Excel spreadsheets, containing all the information on birds and owners, was circulated via an email list to whoever needed it.  Often this list was outdated, incomplete or, even worse, multiple different copies of it would appear with each copy being the "newest" according to someone. As I analyzed the situation further it became clear that at least half our effort was focused not on re-homing birds, but keeping track of them!

The more distributed and de-centralized a rescue becomes, the more critical it is that the information necessary to operate it be the polar opposite - centralized, managed, and authoritative. So in late 2005 I formed the Mickaboo Tech Team, with the goal of streamlining our data storage and handling.

Our first task was to secure our own resources for our email lists - then the backbone of our operations. While using the free Yahoo! service our rescue continued to suffer from random and long email delivery delays. More often than we'd like, volunteers who were able to pick up a bird from the shelter received the emails so late that the shelter had already closed. In one unfortunate case, the bird had already been euthanized by the shelter. Thanks to a kind Silicon Valley donor, a dedicated server of our own was brought online in early 2006 and our infrastructure deployment began.

After migrating our email services to a server with reliable and rapid delivery, we looked at how Mickaboo was struggling with keeping information on birds current. We concluded the data needed to live in one place where everyone could access it. So, our centralized database project began. We customized free software called "Animal Shelter Manager” to allow it to represent our distributed non-shelter-like nature, and installed the central database on our server. We followed up on this by migrating as many volunteer coordinators as possible to begin using "customer relationship management" software to communicate with adopters, surrenderers, other shelters, and the like.

After addressing the question of whom and where birds, owners and equipment were with standardized tools we finally began to tackle our inner selves.  By putting together an internal "Wiki" (a collaborative documentation server) that anyone can edit easily, we asked our volunteers to begin creating documentation entirely inside that tool rather than on their own computers. We also asked them to store all their relevant files inside it as attachments.  These pages and attachments can be shared, edited, reverted and manipulated by whoever has the time to do so, rather than waiting for one person to change "their" file.

So where does that leave us today?

Within easy reach of a query in a search box (ok, a few search boxes, but we're working on that!), a Mickaboo Coordinator Volunteer can:

  • Search through 5 years of emails between our staff and adopters, surrenderers, other shelters, etc.
  • Search hundreds of internal documents and how-tos,
  • Search through 5 years of mailing list discussions,
  • Search for detailed present and past information on any of our 2500+ birds and our 3000+ human contacts, and
  • View at a glance where any current human is in their Mickaboo process (Needs class, Needs home visit, Ready for Approval, Approved to Adopt, etc).

In 2005 when the tech team was formed, Mickaboo had been able to intake about 150 birds each year for the three previous years.  Since 2008 (when most of our volunteers and staff had the tools described above at their disposal) that number has exceeded 350 birds per year and is still climbing.  In part this is due to the expanding volunteer base and the increased experience, drive and professionalism of our management volunteers - but in no small part it's also due to the ease of information flow between the volunteers and the decreased time each volunteer spends asking each other "Hey, where can I find information on...."

Looking toward the future there's much work yet to be done.  Although our capabilities have increased in the last few years, the tools still need to be made simpler, more seamless and better integrated.  Fewer passwords need to exist for different tools on a daily basis, and more emphasis needs to be given to training each and every volunteer on how to take maximum advantage of the capabilities our tools offer. To date, we're only scratching the surface of how we can use technology to enable our mission.  And we mean business - because every minute of time we can save a volunteer from wasting on a search for data, that's a minute of time they can spend approving adopters.  Add up those wasted minutes and suddenly those bits and bytes become happy bird lives, saved by Mickaboo and enhanced by their new loving homes.