Last May I wrote a post about how offices on Capitol Hill deal with the barage of emails they constantly receive. Regulatory bodies and similar organizations also must handle similar flows of e-mails. Despite this, it is very important for our country's democratic nature that individuals' voices are heard. Further, some regulatory bodies are legally required to process public feedback during a comment and review period before a change is made. So what can a Congressional office (or a similar organization) do when it receives tens of thousands of e-mails from constituents the day before a key vote?

I learned about one solution from the eRulemaking Research Group at the University of Pittsburgh while at the Politics Online Conference last week. During the panel titled "Coping with the Deluge: The Future of Mass Email Campaigns" Dr. Stuart W. Shulman talked a program that he's worked on.

This program can take tens of thousands of e-mails and group them by content. Since a significant amount of e-mail to politicians and the government is generated through form letter tools that many advocacy groups use on their websites in which many people don't edit the actual copy, this program can display how many copies of a particular version of an e-mail was sent. There's no need to read thousands of messages that literally say the same thing. Further, some people only make minor edits instead of composing a whole new message, and the program can also find and highlight these changes so that people who have to read them can easily scroll through to find all the different versions without having to read each messages all the way through.

I was pretty impressed by this approach and can definitely see the utility of a program that can shift through a vast amount of information that is mainly comprised of duplicate and near-duplicate content in a manageable way.

It is also important to note that this isn't the only potential solution to deluges of e-mails. Another panelist proposed standardizing the format — from sender information to content — of e-mails sent to such organizations. This will also enable staffers to more efficiently shift through large amounts of e-mails than just reading every message. It is nice to know that there are people out there who are trying to make e-mail a more effective manner in which individuals can interact with politicians and the government.