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How this data cleaning project helps PAWS’ furry friends

Code for Philly volunteers are building an integrated data solution for the animal welfare nonprofit.

Biscuit, a recently adopted PAWS pup. (Photo via
This is a guest post by Code for Philly volunteer Arden Harper.
Like a lot of endeavors in life, this one began with a series of smaller, discrete tasks. In this case, three data projects.

Data science volunteers from R-Ladies Philly spent hours poring over data from the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), an animal welfare organization with a mission to make Philly a no-kill city where every healthy and treatable pet is guaranteed a home.

What started as analyses of adoptions, volunteer engagement, and an ongoing project analyzing pet returns and clinic appointment no-shows data unearthed a bigger problem: How does one pull data from so many areas of the organization’s software quickly and efficiently — especially when the data isn’t compatible for compilation?

There had to be a better way than cleaning these data all over again for each analysis.

And a better way was found: introducing the PAWS Data Pipeline. Philly technologists Chris Kohl and Karla Fettich (who also organizes R-Ladies Philly) are leading a team of volunteers within Code for Philly, an organization that brings people together to learn from one another, network, develop leadership skills, manage projects from end-to-end, work in teams and build tech. This team is building an integrated data solution for PAWS. Overall, including the data analytics projects, there have been more than 30 people who have donated their time to provide advanced skills and expertise in order to make these projects happen.

Chris and Karla, who are running the PAWS Data Pipeline project, are working toward what they call a 360-degree view of PAWS’ constituents.

“We [hope to] understand how we reach them and how we serve them in total,” Chris said. “We understand all of this information today through manual efforts. What we’re looking for is [that by] using analytics and using the system to tell us more, we can properly understand where and who serves us, [as well as] how they serve us and how they help us.”

Right now, PAWS does this manually, searching each of their systems one by one to compile information on each individual they want to engage with. The Data Pipeline is meant to enable them to be more efficient and effective in their outreach, even helping them discover who else among their constituents they should be reaching out to. Chris and Karla hope that this software and their research could be implemented to help a number of organizations outside of PAWS, as well.

PAWS pup Vinny. (Photo via Twitter)

This tool, while vital, will be seamlessly and quietly integrated into the background of PAWS’ software that already exists, and will provide additional functionality and the ability to pull reports. A specific goal is to make sure that all information on constituents (adopters, donors, volunteers, foster pet parents) will be consolidated into one place.

For instance, a common problem the team found was that the same person was listed multiple times. Imagine that Jennifer donates from her debit card, and Jen comes in and volunteers, and when she’s brought her cat into the clinic, she goes by J. H. when she signs in. This is all the same person, yet there are three different files for her across different parts of the systems. Layer on the fact that it’s common (especially for renters) to move yearly, or every few years, around the city. Maybe when she adopted she lived on Chestnut Street and now she lives on Washington Avenue. The PAWS Data Pipeline will fix these discrepancies and have all of this information on Jennifer in one place, to give much more accurate reports when information is needed on constituents.

Accurate data is important, and PAWS interacts with tens of thousands of people per year. Having inconsistent entries for the same person (much like the Jennifer/Jen/J.H. example) causes problems when trying to understand how adopters, volunteers, donors and foster pet parents all engage with PAWS. And this is just from the past; the goal is that not only is the previous data cleaned up and compatible across systems, but new information coming in needs to be able to be implemented into this new system easily and reliably.

PAWS is confident that the Data Pipeline will be an invaluable resource for them. After the analysis of volunteer data was done, the nonprofit already found, in the words of Executive Director Melissa Levy, “some really concrete changes and adjustments that we were able to make in our volunteer program and how we were engaging with people. [Additionally, in] how we were orienting people, the pace of our communication with them, that really resulted in very tangible improvements of the day-to-day care of the animals that the volunteer system exists to provide, so we’re super excited about the potential of this much larger undertaking.”

The team hopes to present a proof of concept (such as a sample of their work, or a first draft) within the next three months. The full program will roll out depending on the specific functionality needed, and how comprehensive it needs to be.


PAWS is always looking for volunteers, including loving people to foster animals. If you’d rather adopt, you can make an appointment (since browsing is currently suspended due to COVID-19) to find your new best friend. If you love animals and have plenty at home already, consider making a one-time gift, or a monthly commitment. (PAWS is 100% donor-funded.) To learn more about how the org is saving and serving Philadelphia’s most vulnerable pets, follow it on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Code for Philly is always looking for talented individuals to volunteer on its ongoing projects, and is open to new project suggestions as well. Follow the org on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Projects: Code for Philly

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