UArizona Team Only Academics Invited to White House Tech Summit

The UArizona team developing NEPAccess – an online platform designed to aggregate, organize and analyze the thousands of Environmental Impact Statements created since the passage of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act– participated as the only academics invited to the first-ever White House Environmental Permitting Technology and Data Summit on Oct. 24. 

The convening was hosted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, White House Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council. It included representatives from more than a dozen federal agencies, as well as private industry and nonprofit partners.

The NEPAccess Platform

The NEPAccess project began in 2011 as a conversation between UAriona Professor of Natural Resources and the Environment Laura López-Hoffman and UArizona Law School Dean Marc Miller. Today, the platform features nearly 18,000 records representing over 5000 individual EIS processes, including downloadable PDF documents for 65% of the EISs completed since 2000. 

The next phase of the project involves expanding the repository to include Environmental Assessments and sharpening the platform’s generative AI toolkit to help project leaders and staff develop new documents more efficiently and make the information in those documents more useful to the public.

Egoitz Laparra is the project’s Natural Language Processing Lead. “These data are very complex,” said Laparra. “These documents are huge, they contain a lot of information, a lot of science, and presenting these kinds of documents to the public is challenging.” 

By augmenting their retrieval system with generative learning models, Laparra is hoping that NEPAccess will soon be able to locate the most important pieces of information in these immense documents and summarize them in a format that is digestible to the general public. “I’m already working on a prototype for this,” Laparra said “It is preliminary, but I’m already obtaining some results.”

The White House Summit

The NEPAcess team says they have been in conversation with a variety of entities that are interested in seeing the project reach its full potential. This includes representatives at several state and federal agencies, bipartisan members of congress, nonprofit foundations, a major research funding organization and a large private infrastructure consulting firm.

The team says that involvement in the Summit also led directly to a number of follow-up conversations with potential partners and that those present at the White House convening seemed particularly excited about NEPAccess’ use of artificial intelligence in the platform, as well as the team’s focus on the user experience and interface. 

“We were outsiders in a way because we were in a different position,” said McGovern of the team’s standing as the only academics at the summit. “We’re not trying to improve our own workflow. We’re trying to create a public good. And maybe that leads us to some different innovations because we’re looking at NEPA from a big-picture perspective.“

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