It’s no secret that Americans loves their dogs, with many admitting that money is no object when it comes to pampering their pooch. But in neighboring countries like Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, our four-legged friends are not so fortunate, with animal welfare often-times taking a backseat to economic, political and social problems. As a result, countless dogs find themselves on the streets searching for food and struggling to survive.
A group of students from West
Virginia University are partnering with students from the National
Autonomous University of Mexico to find a solution to the problem.
“In Latin America, the canine population lives in really poor conditions,” said Saiph Savage, assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at WVU. “Many of the communities have created temporary shelters that are managed by volunteers that use their own monies to care for the dogs. While they do their best, the conditions are poor, with three or more dogs often living in an area of about 10 square feet. Even more alarming is that most dogs have lived in those shelters for more than a decade.”
After meeting with the volunteers, the team of students, led by Claudia Flores-Saviaga, a doctoral student at WVU, and Alejandra Monroy, an undergraduate student from UNAM, came up with a plan to link volunteers with people willing to help not only fund the shelters but also adopt the dogs.
Using data from social media accounts to analyze user preferences and interests in dogs, the team created TinWOOF, a Tinder-like mobile application that seeks to connect people concerned about dogs in order to improve the situation dogs find themselves in. The app allows users to view the dogs from subscribed shelters, allowing them to “virtually” adopt the dog, i.e., donate money to the shelter, or actually donate the dog and become its new owner. In both cases, the shelter’s benefited as well as the dogs. The app is currently being tested in Mexico City.
“Given our technological strengths, we thought we could help create computational techniques to integrate these groups,” said Monroy. “We wanted to help them better communicate among each other.”
In the case of virtual adoptions, the user simply donates a small amount monthly to the shelter that will be used to buy food, supplies and shelters or can help with sterilization campaigns. To adopt a dog, users must fill out a form to establish interest and, once verified, they must accept regular monitoring to ensure the new home is suitable for the pet.
The team encountered a problem early on. The number of dogs available for adoption was larger than the number of citizens available to adopt them. However, there were a large number of people who wanted to help in some way but could not afford to donate money.
“To enable more people to help stray dogs in their cities, we added to a method to our system to dispatch micro-tasks to citizens that they can do to help stray dogs in their free time,” said Monroy. “An example of a micro-task is to suggest they give a dog at the shelter a quick walk around the neighborhood or they create posters for a shelter to help promote adoption of available dogs.”
The project is the latest in a series of research conducted by Savage and her team at WVU that is focused on creating human-centered platforms and systems to better coordinate crowds of volunteers to transform and improve communities.
“One of these projects we are working on is being done in conjunction with the Wikimedia Foundation, in collaboration with Dario Taraborelli, head of research at Wikimedia,” said Savage. “The first phase of the research involved a pilot study were social media bots recruited and guided experts to obtain contributions to edit Wikipedia. Another interesting system we are exploring over the summer is to coordinate volunteers for collective action to build accessibility infrastructure. Working in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, we are building a system that organizes large crowds of volunteers to deploy beacons in a building to help sight-impaired people navigate indoors.”
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