Understanding the problem space: Part VII: The rules

Written by

Understanding the problem space: Part VII: The rules

Written by Shannon Dosemagen and Elizabeth Tyson

Part VII: The rules

Public Commentary

Public commentary periods are built into the Legislative and Executive branches and guided by the Administrative Procedure Act. They are a significant way that public-level environmental information is impactful for rulemaking. Normally these periods accompany the release of a document, like the draft of a national environmental impact statement (NEPA) or a proposed new rule. There are informal and formal commentary processes, with the informal commentary process outpacing the formal process in the past 10 years. This process can either be an in-person town-hall event or, most recently after 2000, through an electronic platform. However these electronic platforms are often archaic and functionally (in their technical construction) don’t allow for a breadth of voices.

The intention behind this process is to encourage transparency and deliberation in government decisions that affect the public. However the current status quo is that when a new rule is proposed, the electronic public comment system can be flooded by spam messages, essentially drowning out genuine citizen input. A well-thought and stated comment can force an Agency to reconsider its rulemaking, so it is critical that the commentary systems are not overloaded.

Legal Architecture

Because our legal system has organically developed over hundreds of years there is an inborn complexity to navigating the system. The procedural avenues in law for achieving an intended outcome are complex and rigid. Without this rigidity the principles of common law as a system of mutual understanding about justice wouldn’t work. Because of this, we’ve developed a system of legal experts that follow strict procedural avenues for presenting each side of a case. When it comes to non-expert input (in the form of community collected data), which is mandated by several federal statutes, the navigation of these strict procedural avenues is resource-intensive and non-expert input can be sidelined by the rules of the system.


There are many facets to the “open environmental data ecosystem” which can make it difficult to create a cohesive narrative across these seemingly disconnected (but actually highly connected) problem areas -- from funding to design to environmental monitoring architecture. Our approach is to highlight the problems that manifested across different actors and stakeholders. While many of these problems are US-centric, as this project continues we will be able to provide regional context.

We also acknowledge there are many people in this space that are actively working towards remediating these problems and if we haven’t already, we’d be interested in hearing from you. Please tweet @OpenEnviroData about your project or send us a note at info@openenvironmentaldata.org.

Thank you to everyone who participated in conversations, provided resources and has acted as a sounding board as we completed this first phase of the project.