Innovation: Online animal rescue logistics
For Chris Roy, Doobert.com developed out of two of his passions, flying and animal rescue. After a friend asked him to fly two rescue dogs to Kentucky, Roy found himself developing a reputation as someone who could help in the transport of rescue animals.
With requests coming in for him to fly animals nearly every day of the week, Roy figured there must be a better system for coordinating the requests and animal transports.
“I thought there was an app for that, but there wasn’t,” he said.
Roy’s response was to begin building Doobert, a web-based platform that helps coordinate the transportation of rescue animals across the United States. It has now developed into a network of 13,000 volunteers that averages 40 to 50 transports every week.
The logistics of animal rescue in the U.S. are such that the southern part of the country experiences a level of overpopulation not seen in the northern states. This means it’s not uncommon for an animal rescued in say, Alabama, to find its way to Milwaukee.
“They have to get here somehow,” Roy said. “And there’s not a UPS for rescued animals.”
There are actually commercial transports for animals, but that adds costs many rescue organizations can’t afford. A common approach instead is to use a rescue relay, with volunteers each handling a leg of the journey.
“The concept of doing smaller loads really helps the smaller rescues more than it does the larger shelters,” said Lynn Olenik, executive director of the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha.
She said the approach to animal rescues has changed over the years to the point where more people want to be involved. She sees Doobert as a way to connect pet lovers with local rescues and shelters.
“It’s about volunteering, commitment and helping out,” she said. “People are really interested and really interested in being involved.”
Roy said each volunteer will typically handle about one hour of the drive and that a relay from Alabama to Wisconsin could take as many as 20 to 25 legs. Coordinating meeting times and locations for that many volunteers quickly turns into a logistical headache.
That’s where Doobert enters the picture. Over the last few years it has developed as a way to automate the logistics of rescue relays. A rescue organization simply enters the starting and ending point for a transport and Doobert plots a route, breaks it into legs and begins the work of reaching out to volunteers. Once the route is filled and a day is set, the first person sets out on the transport.
It isn’t all automation, though. Roy said there is still a transport coordinator who did the initial set-up of the trip and monitors progress on the day of the transport. That person also serves as a point of contact and can make decisions or develop alternatives if problems arise.
At this point, Doobert is essentially a volunteer effort that Roy runs in addition to his day job working in information technology project management at Johnson Controls Inc.
When he started the project, Roy didn’t really know how to go about building a website. He did what his professional experience taught him to do and created a request for proposals. He ended up selecting an India-based firm to do the hard coding for the site, while he provides them with functional specifications.
“There (have) been a lot of challenges along the way,” he said.
The platform integrates with Google Maps and has been augmented with additional elements to go beyond just the transport relay. It now includes rescues, foster homes and even animal photographers.
Roy said his 2017 goal is to continue to build out the platform to address other elements of animal rescue, like feral or community cats.
Along the way, Roy and his Indian partners have added additional layers of security and privacy, along with mobile apps. He said the challenges often come from making the platform work for all devices and browsers. Dealing with spam filters also becomes a challenge, since Doobert sends around 150,000 emails a month.
Someday, Roy hopes to find a way to monetize the platform so he can focus on it full-time. But even if that doesn’t happen, he’s happy to have made the rescue process easier.
The platform’s volunteer base has developed largely through word of mouth, but the system’s design also has boosted participation. Volunteers have an option to sign up to be certified volunteers, but to do that they have to provide references for other rescuers they’ve worked with. A similar process is used for organizations, as well. Contacting those references helps spread the Doobert name and attract more users, Roy said.
He said there are typically 30 to 40 new users a week and part of the challenge is keeping users engaged. The users are particularly concentrated toward the northeast portion of the country and there are fewer on the West Coast.
Olenik sees Doobert as a platform that can help connect volunteer communities into a wider network.
“The whole concept, if it catches on, will be enormously helpful for the animals around the country, not just me getting an animal to Tomah,” she said.