About eRulemaking Research Group

The eRulemaking Research group brings together computer and social scientists to examine electronic rulemaking, human language technologies, coding across the disciplines, digital citizenship, and service-learning efforts in the United States. The eRulemaking toolkit, the Rule Writers Workbench, helps to interpret and structure large quantities of text. It is currently in use by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and has supported rulemakings on the Polar Bear, Grey Wolves, and Yellow Billed Loons.

Work in this domain began in the fall of 1999, when a mid-level agency manager at the USDA's National Organic Program shared 20,000 electronic public comments submitted in response to new proposed standard for organic food. The agency also wrote a letter to the NSF pledging support and collaboration as I undertook a pilot study of the viability of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) qualitative software for sorting large numbers of public comments. While the software proved useful for writing papers (2003, 2005, 2007), it was clear that agencies needed more powerful human language tools to meet the demands of electronic democracy when the pulse of the nation was inflamed (also see "Whither Deliberation?").

The eRulemaking Research Group was formed at the January 2003 National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop titled “E-Rulemaking: New Directions for Technology and Regulation,” held at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. Following the workshop, computer scientists Eduard Hovy (University of Southern California-Information Sciences Institute) and Jamie Callan (Carnegie Mellon University) teamed up with social scientists Stuart Shulman (University of Pittsburgh) and Stephen Zavestoski (University of San Francisco). With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the group participated in and organized workshops, made presentations to federal agencies, NGOs, and private sector representatives, launched an eRulemaking text data testbed, and collaborated with five federal agencies (DOT, EPA, USDA, BLM, and USFS) in the submission of a successful 4-year proposal, funded by the NSF’s Digital Government program. Hovy, Callan & Shulman are conuing to collaborate with new NSF funding over the period 2007-2010.

The computer scientists in the eRulemaking Research Group focus on text clustering, text searching, near-duplicate detection, opinion identification, stakeholder characterization, and extractive summarization. Social scientists in the group are studying the impact of such tools and the Internet more generally on the process of rulemaking. Dating back to the fall of 1999, the group has collected and shared via the CMU Testbed 17 public comment datasets comprising in excess of 1,000,000 public comments on federal regulatory actions. Among the graduate students working in the group are Grace Hui Yang and Jaime Aguello (CMU), Chi-Jung Lu (Pitt), and Namhee Kwon (USC-ISI).

Professors Shulman and Zavestoski worked on a separate NSF-funded study directed by David Schlosberg (Northern Arizona University), a Senior Research Associate in the eRulemaking Research Group. This study was designed to compare traditional paper-based public participation in rulemaking with electronic commentary. The central task of the project is to examine the democratic implications of the move to e-rulemaking. We are comparing e-comments/commenters with traditional comments/commenters through textual analysis of actual public comments and a survey of 1500 rulemaking participants. The key issues in this study include whether the level, tone, and breadth of democratic discourse is improved (or not) by e-rulemaking, with a particular focus on the differences between “form letter” and “unique” comments/commenters. The survey also measures citizen satisfaction with the process, and with the agencies, after their participation in rulemaking. The survey results were published in a paper titled “Democracy and E-Rulemaking: Web-Based Technologies, Participation, and the Potential for Deliberation,” which was published in JITP in 2007.

Other Senior Research Associates in the eRulemaking Research Group are Dr. Mack C. Shelley (Iowa State University), who provides methodological, survey, focus group, grant writing, and external evaluative support for many of the group's efforts, and John Bosley of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, who is collaborator in the usability testing phases of our research.