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Docket Wrench: Exposing Trends in Regulatory Comments

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Sunlight Foundation's Docket WrenchToday the Sunlight Foundation unveils Docket Wrench, an online research tool to dig into regulatory comments and uncover patterns among millions of documents. Docket Wrench offers a window into the rulemaking process where special interests and individuals can wield their influence without the level of scrutiny traditional lobbying activities receive.

Before an agency finalizes a proposed rule that Congress and the president have mandated that they enforce, there is a period of public commenting where the agency solicits feedback from those affected by the rule. The commenters can vary from company or industry representatives to citizens concerned about laws that impact their environment, schools, finances and much more. These comments and related documents are grouped into "dockets" where you can follow the actions related to each rule. Every rulemaking docket has its own page on Docket Wrench where you can get a graphical overview of the docket, drill down into the rules and notices it contains and read the comments on those rules. We've pulled all this information together into one spot so you can more easily research trends and extract interesting stories from the data. Sunlight's Reporting Group has done just that, looking into regulatory comment trends and specific comments by the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA.

Sunlight Foundation's Docket WrenchDocket Wrench is particularly useful at finding form letters through textual analysis with a handy and, dare I say, fun bubble visualization to navigate comments that share significant language with other comments, ranging from 50 to 90 percent similarity.

I suggest searching the internet for the similar phrases you find on Docket Wrench or even docket ID numbers as it can turn up on an advocacy organization's website or petition sites like Change.org or Care2.com. Other times it will be impossible to uncover the source as it could be a private listserv or just an email blast to select supporters, but Docket Wrench is the first and only free public tool that allows this similarity sorting of regulatory comments. While it's not always possible to make definitive statements based on the similarity data alone, Docket Wrench provides a powerful new tool in the shed of those investigating the rulemaking process. Check out the popular searches on the Docket Wrench home page or explore this one about school lunch programs or this rule about air quality standards.

Behind the scenes, the compiling and cleaning of the data in Docket Wrench was a considerable technological lift with the processing of more than 3 terabytes of information and approximately 3.5 million documents. We're proud of the fact that Docket Wrench is the largest data collection in Sunlight's history and it grows larger every day as we continue to incorporate new dockets, comments and metadata. We began with data from Regulations.gov, the clearinghouse for federal regulatory data from almost 300 agencies, then moved to incorporate notices, rules and proposed rules in the Federal Register. We also expanded our text extraction in all available supplemental materials and metadata that allows us to track employers of commenters and group organizations across dockets. We tied this extra info to our Influence Explorer entity database, giving users a connection to the broader influence activities of each notable submitter.

Hopefully that video covers the basics of using Docket Wrench, but I found it's very helpful to just poke around the site to learn what interests you. You can attend a more in-depth training webinar on how to use Docket Wrench on February 5th from 1-2 pm ET. If you are interested in that please follow this link Sunlight Academy to sign up.

Thank you to the Hewlett Foundation who generously supported the development of Docket Wrench. Support for some of the data collection came from the Ford Foundation. Additional thanks to the EPA eRulemaking team, which runs the Regulations.gov site that was tremendously helpful in providing access to federal regulatory data.