Animals Inspire Analytics Innovation

One of my favorite things to do is look at some of the ways organizations around the world have begun analyzing data for operational improvements -- and public venues like zoos are no exception.

Back in 2011, for example, All Analytics editor Beth Schultz wrote about the Cincinnati Zoo, one of the first cultural attractions to use advanced analytics to discover ways it could cut costs, increase revenue, and deliver a better service to its customers at the same time. Of course today, with business analytics being much more common in the enterprise, other zoos have jumped on it and are seeing impressive benefits too.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, in Tacoma, Wash., is a case in point. It's created a predictive model that has helped it overhaul decades-old staffing practices, as zoo administrator Donna Powell described in a Wired Innovation Insights story posted earlier this year. This involved looking at ticket sales and cross-referencing them with detailed weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a predictive model of how many visitors it might get on any given day.

This is important for a venue that can have 1,200 visitors one day and 5,000 the next, as staffing needs to be considered, along with amenities, ticket pricing, and more. By using deep analytics to predict how many people are likely to arrive on any particular day, Point Defiance is able to achieve savings on days when few people arrive and in turn capitalize on those when the park is full to capacity. Powell explained in the Wired post:

Since 65% of the [sic] our costs are payroll expenses and most of our staff work flexible hours, we can now use data to accurately predict how many employees we need to have on hand each day.

And as Point Defiance Zoo adds more analytical capabilities and data to our system, we'll be able to understand and adapt to the fluctuations in visitors more fluidly. So if it's nice in the morning, but going to rain in the afternoon, we could adjust staffing based on the weather patterns.

Analytics is going to help this zoo -- and no doubt many other public attractions as it catches on -- in a number of different ways, too.

At Point Defiance, for example, Powell wrote how visitors might one day be able to voluntarily "check in" as they roam around the zoo using mobile technology. Likewise, I would imagine, zoos might one day be able to analyze footage from video cameras to predict the routes people take through the park, or look at how long they spend at any particular area.

This is useful for figuring out what people's favorite attractions are and building engagement around those, as well as in planning park layout and design. With analytics insight, zoos will be able to tailor exhibits to visitors' interests and needs more effectively.

Zoos are also starting to apply business analytics in a different direction. As discussed in this case study from Blackbaud, which develops software and services for nonprofits, San Diego Zoo applied analytics to its database of recent and regular monetary donors. The goal was to figure out which were most likely to continue contributing over the long term based on a number of metrics, which Blackbaud in turn cross-referenced with predictions on individual's income.

From there, it was simply a matter of customizing the donation request communiqués the zoo sends out, thereby maximizing the amount of money brought in from volunteer donors while reducing the chance of scaring them off by requesting sums they would not be able afford.

This profiling also allowed the zoo to contact specific donors when certain projects needed extra funding, since it was able to analyze which had the most expendable capital and were the most committed to seeing the zoo develop, the case study reported. This personal touch gave the zoo a much higher success rate when requesting extra funds, which not only improves the business, but the lives of the animals in its care.

Moving forward, I'd like to see organizations like these take analytics one step further yet. Using a similar model to in-store customer tracking, zoos could analyze CCTV footage of animals to better determine how to construct enclosures. On top of that, for animals that tend to have a routine, regular analysis would be a solid method for spotting injuries or potential hormonal changes due to environmental conditions or pregnancy.

How else might zoos or other public attractions benefit from analytics? I'd love for you to share your ideas below.

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Jon Martindale, Technology Journalist

Jon Martindale is a technology journalist and hardware reviewer, having been covering new developments in the field for most of his professional career. In that time he's tested the latest and greatest releases from the big hardware companies of the world, as well as writing about new software releases, industry movements,and Internet activism.

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Employee impact
  • 8/25/2014 2:57:54 PM

It's a very interesting approach but I wonder how it affects worker longevity and morale. If workers are scheduled based on the weather it might make their earnings potential very limited and their personal schedules a nightmare. Does the zoo address this at all in their analytics on employee satisfaction and retention?

Re: Analytics in action
  • 8/25/2014 7:17:34 AM

That's an interesting twist.  I wonder what could be captured with regard to animal activity, health and longevity and how things like zoo attendance affect them.  I'm sure that zoos with higher annual attendance can afford to give the animals better accommodations but are the additional people enough stress that it negates the better living environment.

Re: Analytics in action
  • 8/23/2014 1:50:55 PM

I would agree whole heartedly that looking at animal behavior would be an interesting use of analytic to make thinks more humane for the creatures there. But, probably funding would be a big issue. Where to get money for changes and new habitats would be a challenge. But, maybe the infomation gained would be good in fund raising efforts, convincing patrons of the needs based on the studies.

Re: Analytics in action
  • 8/22/2014 4:24:31 PM

Terry, I just read about the movement toward creating "natural enrichment environments" in zoos, case in point being Brookfield Zoo here in Chicago. The zoo has a couple of artists on staff who work with zookeepers to create natural-looking toys and devices for feeding. The  goal according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, is to maintain "sharp, engaged animals that behave as typically and naturally as possible in their enclosures." My impression after reading the piece is that the big ideas come from observing the animals and how they interact with each other and their habitats. I imagine there's a lot of data recorded in handwritten notes or plunked into spreadsheets that could help supplement or verify those observations.

Re: Analytics in action
  • 8/22/2014 11:20:34 AM

Really interesting piece, Jon. And I agree with your call to action to make zoos better for the animals housed in them. Surely there must be a Temple Grandin-like person or consultancy looking closely at behavior, psychology and the long-term effects of captivity.

Conscious observation could yield mountains of data that would make zoos much better places for those who inhabit them.

Analytics in action
  • 8/22/2014 7:41:37 AM

This is a nice example of taking advantage of what you know to shape what you're doing.  I live in the land of theme parks and I know that they do a fair amount of looking at attendance patters but they seem to fall a bit short from time to time.  I've been there as large tour groups come in and watched the regular flow of traffic change dramatically.  A little planning for these groups could keep things moving but the parks tend to be unaware or they don't really give them much thought.  I will say though that the numbers can't tell the whole story and there needs to be some analysis by walking around.  I got really good at knowing what areas would be less busy and how to bypass the human traffic jams.  A park employee doing this could use the knowledge to direct people to less busy areas of the park and make the experience better for everyone.