A real-time analytic dashboard is being designed that could change the way federal staffers and the general public view and evaluate feedback on specific government proposals.
The new interface will use data from Regulations.gov to provide users with deeper insight into the types of public commentary made on proposed rules and which commenters may be affiliated with certain lobbying groups. The project was conceived by volunteers from Splunk, an operational intelligence provider.
Regulations.gov is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s public docket and online comment system. It gives federal agencies the ability to post publicly available documents associated with regulatory affairs and other issues. Docket materials can include reports, studies, rule proposals, hearing transcripts and public comments.
The tool doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s powered by Regulations.gov’s open application programming interface. Once the project is live, it will reside on the website of Splunk4Good, Splunk’s charity arm. The group has a number of other public policy projects on the site, including a Federal Election Commission data explorer and a hashcloud developed during the 2012 presidential election that displayed real-time data about President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Christy Wilson, vice president of product operations for Splunk, explained that the idea to work on Regulations.gov stemmed from meetings with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy earlier this year. She said while Regulations.gov gives the public the ability to comment online, federal officials didn’t have an ability to splice through that feedback easily. The feds also weren’t able to communicate in an efficient manner back to the public about the value of the feedback.
The new dashboard will help address some of those issues. Wilson said a beta version of the tool is already working on a private server, but the team is still discussing various features that could be added before it launches.
Some of those features may include the ability to see which agency is getting the most comments on its documents and derive public sentiment about that particular agency from the comments. In addition, it could also be capable of differentiating the quality of the comments so that decision-makers can better focus on impactful ideas.
Another element looked at was the sway of “influencers.” For example, if 10 percent of the feedback to a certain item has the exact same language, the dashboard would note that, as it could indicate that all those comments came from a particular organization. Although that may not necessarily raise or lower the commentary’s value, the agencies and public could see where the comments are coming from.
“All comments matter, but if, for example, the comment was ‘I hate fracking,’ that’s not as actionable as ‘In lieu of fracking, I would like to see this,’” Wilson said. “They are interested in all comments, but want an easier way to see comments that are a little more actionable and informative.”
Government Technology contacted the EPA for comment on the project, but the agency declined to make a representative available for an interview. Wilson did not provide a firm date for the tool’s launch, but indicated that it would be released as a public data project after a quality assurance testing period.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.