When explanatory late-night comedian John Oliver urged his viewers to weigh in on proposed net neutrality regulations in June 2014, the sudden onslaught of public comments – more than 45,000 were submitted by the following day, according to news reports – crashed the website of the Federal Communications Commission.
Some might say that's a win for civic engagement, but such an overwhelming response also creates a costly and time-consuming problem: all of those comments must be reviewed and considered by real, live human beings. That takes time and money.
Enter Notice & Comment (N&C), a growing Baltimore tech startup which has developed a solution using IBM's Watson – the same artificial intelligence technology that triumphed over two human competitors on "Jeopardy!" a few years ago.
"Many interest groups might have large numbers of people submit identical letters on a topic," said N&C founder and CEO John W. Davis II. "But public comment isn't a vote. It's a deliberative process."
That means it's not just the number of comments supporting or opposing a regulation that matters – the quality and content of those comments must be considered as well, Davis said.
It might take a small army of lawyers at a federal agency months to sift through and evaluate the comments submitted on a controversial proposal like net neutrality, leaving taxpayers with a hefty bill, he said.
"In the digital age, where you now get hundreds of thousands or millions of comments, it becomes a huge budget issue," Davis said.
That's precisely where N&C's Watson-powered platform, REGENDUS, comes in. The platform has a natural-language processing capability which allows for more complex inquiries than a simple keyword search.
According to Davis, REGENDUS can scan a vast pool of comments in minutes and produce an array of useful data — not just about whether commenters support or oppose a given regulation, but also probing the reasons for their opinions, identifying common areas of concern and predicting the impact of the proposal on various industries, sectors or groups.
The product doesn't remove the human element from the evaluation process, but can improve workflow and provide useful analysis to N&C's federal agency clients, Davis said.
Private-sector clients can use REGENDUS to find trends in the public comments, identify allies or adversaries and anticipate the impact of new regulations on their business operations.
For Davis, developing the company and product builds on "a lifetime of looking at words and processing them," including his experiences as collegiate debater, a trial lawyer, and a debate coach; he has even partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have college debate teams help the agency's regulators evaluate complex topics.
N&C, currently working out of the Emerging Technology Centers (ETC) incubator, recently completed a $275,000 equity financing round through the Maryland Department of Commerce's Equity Participation Investment Program.
"I'm proud to have the State of Maryland demonstrate confidence in our company as an investor of more than a quarter-million dollars," Davis said. "We are poised for growth, with an expanding pipeline of exciting new enterprise client opportunities. Our company looks forward to providing a strong return on the state's investment, by creating exciting new employment opportunities right here in Baltimore."
N&C has also received funding from sources including the Baltimore Angels investment group and the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO), and is currently in the process of several trials with organizations in the energy, finance, food and pharmaceutical sectors, Davis said. The company is also hoping to begin trials with state-level agencies.
"We've been getting tremendous feedback," Davis said. "We feel like we'll be the first to hit this particular niche."