Big data for guide dogs. IBM helps train service dogs

Big data for cute puppies. IBM brings data to guide dogs

Guide dogs in training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind pose for a family photo on the organization’s nature path.

Credit: Guiding Eyes for the Blind

Guiding Eyes for the Blind uses IBM's cloud and Watson to help improve the screening, breeding and training processes of its guide dogs

I love the idea of big data. Being able to derive insights from the ever-increasing stream of information out there is an awesome promise. But alas, a good proportion of the case studies we hear about big data end up being about how big data is used to tailor sales and marketing messages and eke out a few cents extra on every transaction. It may be the reality of our commercial world, but it's sad to see a promising technology applied this way.

So, it was nice to receive a pitch from IBM's cloud computing division about how it is partnering with Guiding Eyes for the Blind to bring dogs and data together. While it may sound like an April Fool's joke, IBM is taking structured and unstructured canine data and putting it on the IBM cloud to crunch numbers and generate insights.

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That's not as crazy an idea as it sounds. Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the U.S.'s leading breeders and trainers of service dogs, has been collecting and analyzing troves of information about its dogs (half a million health records and 65,000-plus temperament records) continually perfecting its breeding and training processes since 1954. Not surprisingly, the data was sitting trapped within legacy systems. The move into the cloud will not only provide simplified IT and data management, but it will improve data accessibility for greater analysis.

It would be easy to assume (as I did) that breeding guide dogs is a fairly simple process, with everyone settling on the best breed and just getting down to it. Instead, data from medical records and complex genetic mapping is all utilized, as well as unstructured data from feedback collected from trainers and host families reflecting upon their experiences with different dogs.

Easier access for research

Guiding Eyes is moving all of its records to the cloud and alongside cost and analytics benefits, aims to provide easier access to colleagues across the U.S., as well as partners and scientists, each of whom will be able to positively impact research and analysis of genetic and behavioral data.

As an example of this collaborative opportunity, in January the organization invited Chris Tseng, Ph.D., and professor of computer science at San Jose State University to analyze its trove of DNA and behavioral data. Using IBM Watson Personality and Natural Language Processing, Dr. Tseng and his machine learning students spent the spring semester analyzing the organization’s vast amounts of structured and unstructured data. The group hopes to establish a process for identifying data patterns and correlating traits, characteristics, environmental conditions and personalities—of both dogs and trainers—to help improve Guiding Eyes’ dog graduation rates and to better match young dogs with trainers and ultimately owners.

“People don’t typically think about an organization like ours as a big data company, but we cannot succeed or grow without it,” said Thomas Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes. “By collecting information about our dogs over the years, we can dig into the data to pull out meaningful insights about health, behavior, temperament and so much more. However, all of that was becoming increasingly difficult on our legacy systems. By putting it on the IBM Cloud, we will simplify our IT and make our data more accessible for more analysis.”

IBM Cloud Computing produced the below video to illustrate the process of training guide dogs:

Ultimately, Guiding Eyes hopes the move to the cloud will play a part in helping it improve the screening and breeding processes, as well as the graduation rate of its dogs—which is currently at just 36 percent. Given that it costs approximately $50,000 to train each dog, even the slightest improvements to graduation rates can mean greater cost efficiencies and more qualified dogs for people in need. 

A nice story miles apart from any sales and marketing snake oil.

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