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UAlbany Researchers Test Software on Online Public Feedback Process
Two-year, $449,000 grant awarded by the National Science Foundation

Contact(s):  Catherine Herman (518) 956-8150

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 27, 2007) -- University at Albany researchers Jennifer Stromer-Galley and Nick Webb, in collaboration with Texas Tech University professor Peter Muhlberger, have received a $449,000 National Science Foundation grant to study how existing software, developed by the Institute for Informatics, Logics and Security Studies at UAlbany, can help overcome barriers in the online public comment process used to provide feedback to government agencies. The Deliberative E-Rulemaking Decision Facilitation Project (DeER) will use the software to manage and organize public opinions to help relay feedback to government agencies proposing regulations.

Currently, people can visit the U.S. Government regulations Web site to find out which agencies are inviting feedback on proposed regulations, as well as instructions on how to comment. However, the process has been marred by low quality and redundant comments due to social and organizational problems, including poorly informed citizens.

The DeER project uses cutting-edge natural language processing software to help answer questions from the public about the proposed regulation change and summarize public discussion about it, as well as highlight key points of the discussion.

"Building from this, we can summarize the discussion as a whole, track emerging topics, see how they are resolved, and present a summary which is useful when others, like lawmakers for example, want to see what the key elements of the discussion were," said Webb, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Informatics, Logics, and Security Studies.

With the DeER project, researchers will set up a Web site with a message board, where people can discuss a proposed regulation by a government agency, which will be selected by researchers for the study. The conversation will be submitted to the government agency, as well as the "digital facilitator's" summary of the discussion, and any recommendations that have emerged from the participants' deliberation.

In the project's first phase, UAlbany and Texas Tech students will be recruited to help test the software. In the second phase, citizens from across the United States will be recruited through announcements on government Web sites.

"The federal agency rulemaking comment process represents one of the most important potential avenues by which the American public can affect how it is governed, so it's imperative that there's a viable, effective system to facilitate public discussion and comments online," said Stromer-Galley, professor of communication.

The effect of the technology and deliberation methods will be thoroughly tested using experimental methods and data collected through surveys, focus groups, and automated and human content analysis of the discussions.

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