ePolicy: Engineering the POlicy-making LIfe CYcle (ePolicy)

Published on: 05/05/2014
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ePolicy is aimed at helping policy makers in making decisions. It consists of a multi-disciplinary research effort whose goal is to support policy makers in their decision making processes during the policy-making life-cycle.

ePolicy uniquely integrates global and individual perspectives on the decision making process, bringing to the policy makers’ attention both global (e.g. impacts, budget constraints and objectives) and individual concerns (e.g. opinions, reactions) and hence giving guidance on better policy implementation strategies. An innovative game theory approach guides interactions and conflict management between these two levels. In addition, the ePolicy approach involves evaluating the economic, societal and environmental impacts of policy at both the global and individual levels. Societal impacts are derived from data retrieved from e-participation and Web2.0 tools. Both policy makers and citizens are assisted in the decision-making and participation processes through visualisation tools.

From a technological perspective, leading-edge optimisation and decision-support techniques contribute to a better understanding at the global level, while agent-based simulation tools perform social simulations at the individual level. Game theory is then used to manage conflicts and regulate the interaction between the two. In addition, techniques using opinion-mining from e-participation derive data about the sentiments of the citizens regarding specific subjects. Advanced visualisation tools form the interface to the user, supporting the decision-making process.

The proof of concept developed by the ePolicy project is an open source decision support system where the above components are implemented, integrated and evaluated in a use case – aspects of a real-world regional energy plan. One of the key barriers to the progress of renewable energy projects is recognised as the planning and consenting process. The ePolicy project contributes towards resolving these issues.

ePolicy is a FP7 STREP Project funded under the Objective ICT-2011.5.6 ICT solutions for Governance and Policy Modelling. The European Commission has recognised ICT as an important instrument for helping governance and policy making. The pivotal role of ICT for governance is recognised in the FP7 ICT Work programme, whose ‘Challenge 5’ is specifically devoted to ICT for Health, Ageing Well, Inclusion and Governance.

Policy Context

Policy making can be described as the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver ‘outcomes’ - desired changes in the real world.

Policymakers should be guided by core principles such as:

  • accountability to the public,
  • open, accessible, and transparent decision making processes which are responsive to public concerns,
  • ensuring that those impacted by developments have the right to be involved in planning and decision-making processes, and
  • taking responsibility for assessing the economic, societal and environmental impacts of what is proposed. 

In practice this may be difficult to achieve. The importance of good policy making is emphasised by the large amount of EU funding that is involved. Optimising the way these resources are invested can have a large economic impact.

Public policy issues are extremely complex, occur in rapidly changing environments characterised by uncertainty, and involve conflicts among different interests. Thus, those responsible for creating, implementing, and enforcing policies must be able to reach decisions about ill-defined problem situations that are not well understood, have no one correct answer, involve many competing interests and interact with other policies at multiple levels. It is therefore ever more important to ensure coherence across these complex issues.

The ePolicy project aims to equip policy makers with integrated models, visualisation, simulation and opinion mining techniques that improve the outcomes of complex global decision making. The proposed tools rely on the multi-disciplinary expertise of the ePolicy consortium linking a critical mass of know-how on computational social science, environmental engineering, optimisation, machine learning and visualisation.

Several enabling technologies are being used in the ePolicy project as follows:-

  • optimisation and decision support;
  • agent-based simulation; and
  • game theory for regulating their interaction. 

A number of other important technologies are also needed to create an open, transparent and accountable tool. These include e-Participation tools, opinion mining technologies and advanced visualisation techniques.

Although these proposed technologies and techniques are general and can be applied at different political levels (for example at an EU, national, regional, or local level) the ePolicy project is focusing on the use case of aspects of regional energy planning in the Emilia Romagna Region of Italy. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly the increasing importance of renewable energy as a result of climate change concerns and the possible depletion of fossil fuels, and secondly the need to involve citizens and stakeholders in the decision making process on this topic.

The potential added value that the ePolicy approach brings is the ability to balance the global perspective (such as seeking to achieve global climate change objectives) against the objectives of individuals (who may not perceive such issues to be a priority). The use of a unified and flexible computer aided tool to smoothly model the complex interaction of the global and individual levels constitutes a political innovation and could have a huge impact in terms of optimal resource allocation and land use activities. This is relevant for applications far beyond the case study of a regional energy plan.

It is important, therefore, to underline the wide applicability of the project results. The proposed solution could be applied to all types of regional planning where planning decisions are strategic or indeed at all levels of government. In fact the applicability of the ePolicy approach could be even wider than that - including helping businesses to address the complex issues that they have to face in, for example, balancing commercial and environmental imperatives.

Description of target users and groups

The ePolicy project is focusing on the use case of particular aspects of the regional energy planning in the Emilia Romagna Region of Italy. However there are many ways that the results of the project can be taken forward and extended to other areas. In particular, six possible opportunities for extending the system have been identified .

These opportunities for potential extensions to the system are illustrated in the diagram below.

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The six areas of extension for the ePolicy approach are briefly examined below:-

  • To a higher scale, i.e. national and European Union (EU) – in regard to renewable energy policy, there are several levels at which such policies can be developed including at the level of national governments or that of the EU. The EU is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% by 2020, relative to 1990 levels, increasing the share of renewable energy sources in final energy consumption to 20% and increasing energy efficiency in Europe by 20%. The Renewable Energy Directive establishes legally binding individual targets for the share of renewable energy in final energy consumption for each Member State. Thus a possible extension to the DSS is to focus it on the renewable energy sections of national and European Energy plans.
  • To other regions - One of the most straightforward applications of the ePolicy approach would be to extend it to the Regional Energy plan for other regions. Clearly, the energy plans of Italian regions would be similar to that of RER, but it is believed that the ePolicy approach could also be applied to non-Italian Regions.
  • To a lower scale, i.e. province and municipality and similar - another potential application of the ePolicy DSS is to apply it to lower levels - in particular to provinces, municipalities and similar jurisdictions.
  • Extension to other policy domains - these are one of the most difficult potential extensions of ePolicy. The number of changes that would need to be implemented is greater and, more importantly, they are dependent on the policy area that is being considered. However, in analysing different regional plans in a range of policy areas, some commonalities have been identified which could be exploited to ease the amount of required change.
  • Extension to other chapters of the regional energy plan – during the ePolicy project attention has mainly been focused on the chapter of the energy plan concerned with energy production from renewable energy sources. The approach could be extended to address other chapters (e.g. energy efficiency) of the plan.
  • Extension to business models - interesting ideas are emerging for extending the ePolicy approach to business models used in the commercial sector.

Clearly, some of the potential extensions could be combined. For example, other sections of the energy plan, such as the part dealing with energy efficiency, but at the national level. Another example could be municipal plans for transport.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

ePolicy addresses the integration of two closely connected modelling viewpoints: the “global” and the “individual” perspective. The first considers global objectives such as the financial aspects, constraints and impact assessments on the economy, society and the environment on a large scale. The second seeks to identify individual views, and merges attitudes and reactions to specific political decisions with the aim of defining the best policy implementation strategy.

Work Packages

There are 10 work packages (WP):-

  1. Project management
  1. Policy modelling: components of the regional planning problem and system specification
  1. Global policy modelling: optimisation and decision support
  1. Individual policy modelling: agent based simulation
  1. Integration of the global and individual levels: game theory based interaction
  1. Opinion mining on e-participation data for deriving social impacts
  1. Visual analytics techniques for supporting the policy making process and e-participation
  1. System implementation, validation and assessment
  1. System demonstration of the regional energy plan
  1. Dissemination and exploitation

 

The enabling technologies are

  • optimisation and decision support for the global planning viewpoint (WP3); 
  • agent-based simulation for the individual perspective (WP4); and
  • game theory for regulating their interaction (WP5). 

A number of other technologies are needed to create an open, transparent and accountable tool.

For extracting social attitudes, e-Participation tools and opinion mining technologies will be used (WP6). Opinion mining identifies social impacts that should be considered at both the global and individual level. At the global level, opinion mining can produce an ex-ante or “before the event” policy evaluation. Citizens’ opinions are being collected through the web from thematic web sites and are providing an indication of the general sentiment regarding a specific policy field.

Once sets of alternative (feasible and optimal) scenarios have been developed, citizens and stakeholders can express their ex-post opinion on the policy options available.

Finally, the use of advanced visualisation techniques (WP7) assists both the policy maker and citizens and stakeholders in providing informed opinions on the policy options.

All the technical work-packages will be aimed at an open source and flexible architecture, which is the subject of WP8.

Although the proposed techniques are general and can be applied at different political levels such as regional, provincial, urban planning and public and private projects, the ePolicy project will focus on a use case of certain aspects of regional energy planning in the Emilia Romagna Region of Italy. 

WP1 is devoted to extract the main "ingredients" of Regional Planning and WP9 to the demonstration of the overall architecture.

Case Study: the Emilia Romagna Regional Energy Plan 2011-2013

The ePolicy use case study is the Emilia Romagna Regional Energy plan. ePolicy is providing a tool for supporting regional planners to create an energy plan that is in line with strategic EU and national objectives, consistent with financial and territorial constraints and participatory opinion mining results, well assessed from an environmental perspective and optimised with respect to one or more metrics. In addition to the regional plan, ePolicy will provide a portfolio of implementation instruments (namely fiscal incentives, tax exemption, investment grants) for encouraging society in general and the energy market in particular to move in the direction envisaged by the plan.

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Implementing the ePolicy Model

  • Implemented as web services to support:
    • Environmental experts 
    • Policy makers 
  • The global optimiser provides alternative scenarios
  • The incentive design identifies policy instruments for achieving the objectives of the plan 
  • The social simulator evaluates the impact of the policy instrument on the society 
  • The opinion mining component identifies the attitudes that people express

Technology solution

The overall architecture of the ePolicy framework has been organised following the principles of Service Oriented Architectures (SOA). Such a choice has been motivated by fundamental nature of the ePolicy project, i.e. the merging of many different state-of-the-art techniques to provide a comprehensive approach. In particular:

  • The ePolicy framework provides a unified view of many different components, each component focussed on a particular aspect related to the policy life-cycle.
  • Some of the components currently available might not be available in the future (e.g., because of obsolescence).
  • Newer specific components might be added to the framework in the future, covering specific aspects.
  • Each component provides state-of-the-art approaches to specific tasks: to this end, each component might have its own technical requirements, and the overall framework should be flexible enough to support them.

From the SOA viewpoint, the chosen approach is based on an orchestrator that provides state-full user interaction, while specific services provide access to the single components and are mainly stateless.

Currently, two type of services are supported within the framework: WS-* based services with full WSDL description, and RESTFull services.WS-based services expose the data through the SOAP protocol, and the data is presented by means of non-encrypted XML representation; RESTFull services instead expose the data through HTTP GET/POST, and the data is represented using JSON notation. Both the technological choices guarantee the openness of the data, and provide a solid base for future interoperability.

The orchestrator has been developed as an open source component, based on the Java technology and in particular using the Spring Framework for the integration of various services, and the security (authentication and authorisation). The persistence of the data is achieved through the use of standard relational database management systems, and in particular through the use of the MySQL RDBMS (community edition).

The single services and components have been developed using open source solutions, and will be made available using open source licenses, so as to make them freely available and usable to the community and to interested EU stakeholders. Only one exception has been made for the Graphical User Interface developed in the Fraunhofer Institute, where specific software licenses and IPR management is envisaged.

Summing up, the ePolicy framework architecture currently envisage and support interoperability of the various component both at the technological and at the organisational level.

Technology choice: Mainly (or only) open standards, Open source software

Main results, benefits and impacts

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Objectives of the Project

ePolicy is aimed at providing policy makers with tools that support each step of the decision process. The main objectives are:

  • Supporting policy makers in their decision process. This consists of a multi-disciplinary effort aimed at the engineering of a policy making life-cycle;
  • Integrating overall and individual perspectives into the decision process;
  • Evaluating the economic, social and environmental impacts during policy making (at both the overall and individual levels);
  • Establishing likely social impacts through opinion mining of e-participation data;
  • Aiding the policy maker, citizens and stakeholders with visualisation tools.

Expected Outcomes

The ePolicy expected outcomes are:

  • A flexible tool for optimisation and decision support for policy making at global (regional) level taking into account objectives, constraints, financial issues and impacts on environment, economy and society.
  • An agent-based simulation approach at individual level for identifying the best policy implementation strategies.
  • A game theoretical approach for the interaction between the global and the individual levels.
  • A novel application of visual analytics techniques for supporting policy makers in the decision process and helping citizens and stakeholders in providing a more informed evaluation.
  • Techniques for opinion mining for social impacts derived from e-participation data
  • An open source tool integrating the above mentioned components that is open, accessible and reusable in other policy contexts.
  • Extensive activities aimed at achieving the highest level of dissemination of project results and preparing for the exploitation of the proposed solution overall and of each individual components.

Expected Societal and Economic Benefits

  • Improved prediction of policy impacts leading to more efficient implementation of regional policies and better identification of the benefits and consequences for citizens and business;
  • Increased engagement of citizens and wider use of ICT tools resulting in innovative interactions between citizens and government;
  • Improved transparency of information on the impact of economic decisions on society;
  • Improved capacity to react to the main societal challenges, and increased trust of stakeholders and the public at large in governance. 

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

Effective dissemination and communication is a fundamental activity in any research process, since the success of these activities contributes decisively to the short and long term success of a research project – as measured by knowledge usage by external entities and its degree of adoption. This has been clearly identified as an important matter by the ePolicy project and is being addressed by a wide range of activities.

An ePolicy website was designed, developed and implemented at an early stage of the project. It can be found at http://www.epolicy-project.eu. Usage of the website is regularly monitored.

In the first year of the project a brochure was produced to provide the opportunity to communicate information about the project to others. This was subsequently updated and the revised version was initially used at an exhibition in Germany. It is expected to be further utilised at a number of dissemination and other events, and is available to anyone from the ePolicy website.

An ePolicy project poster has been produced and used at an exhibition in Italy. Again it is expected that this will be further used at future dissemination events, and is available on the website.

A number of scientific and user community publications are being published as well as attendance at and presentations to academic conferences in Europe and other parts of the world, including the US and Japan. An ongoing “live” register of dissemination activities is being maintained. This will be used to keep a comprehensive record of all such activities which will be included in appropriate final project reports.

With the growing importance of social media ePolicy Twitter (https://twitter.com/ePolicy_EUFP7 (webpage), twitter 'handle' @ePolicy_EUFP7), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/epolicyFP7) accounts and a LinkedIn group have been set up. These are seeing increasing activity and are helping to achieve maximum exposure of the projects results and stimulating interactions with those who may be interested in understanding, using or progressing them.

An ePolicy project video has been produced with the purpose of promoting ePolicy to stakeholders and the general public. This short video includes interviews with consortium members explaining the main concepts of ePolicy and the tools developed, and is available on the website, and promoted on the ePolicy social media.

In view of the importance of dissemination and exploitation to ePolicy there is continuing contact with potentially interested stakeholders such as public bodies (regions, municipalities, energy agencies, and national ministries), companies and environmental agencies through workshops, events and one to one communications.

A series of projects related to ePolicy have been identified. The ePolicy team is setting up links with these projects (or in cases where the project is completed those participants that can be identified) with the aim of sharing results and stimulating discussion and debate. 

Lessons learnt

Stakeholder involvement: it is important that the requirements and needs of stakeholders and users are continuously the focus of the project. The fact that the use case that ePolicy is developing is based on the energy plan of one of the partners of the project (Regione Emilia-Romagna), together with the detailed involvement of another partner (Aster), has been a considerable advantage as it has been possible to get regular feedback on requirements. This has identified aspects where changes can provide significant additional value to the users of the system. Ensuring that the system is as user friendly as possible has also been an important priority. The visualisation techniques utilised by the project are aimed at delivering intuitive access to, use of and understanding of the results from the system.

As well as achieving the participation of stakeholders and users directly involved with the project it is also vital that a broader range of such potential future users are encouraged to interact with the project. This group is also important as a resource for testing the system and evaluating its overall performance. Establishing and maintaining contact with possible members of this group can be challenging and requires a significant investment of time and effort. Individual project partners will need to make use of their networks of contacts and there may be opportunities through conferences and other events to stimulate interest in the results of the project. The project itself can also organise an event to showcase its results.

Interactions between the partners: the ePolicy project is being undertaken by a consortium that consists of nine partners located in five countries. Four of the partners are universities, one is the local government of a region of Italy, three are research institutions or agencies, and one is an SME (small and medium enterprise) from the private sector. The academic partners come from a mixture of disciplines. Whilst this give a rich diversity to the consortium – which should be encouraged in future projects - it is important to recognise that it also brings about the need to ensure ongoing co-ordination and communication between the partners. This has been achieved by regular meetings of all members of the consortium supplemented by telephone conferences and ad-hoc meetings of groups of partners to deal with aspects of more limited interest, as well as partner-to-partner contacts. The importance of this regular communication cannot be over-emphasised – particularly on a face-to-face basis. It is a vital component of developing and maintaining a shared vision of the overall results from the project and a co-ordinated approach to undertaking the required work. Whilst the amount of communication has been sufficient for ePolicy to operate effectively, future projects may wish to consider whether additional direct communication would be beneficial.

Complexity and integration: ePolicy is focused on the analysis, interpretation and visualisation of large amounts of complex data in a way that is useful to the decision making processes of a non-specialist policymaker. It is important to be aware that whilst much data may be available it may not be comprehensive or wholly comparable which could increase the role of the policymakers own judgement in the decision making process. As better information and analysis becomes available then the ability to substitute or enhance the modules within ePolicy increase in importance. Hence the ePolicy application takes on a more modular structure and the significant role of integrating new or updated analysis tools becomes ever more important. This has been recognised by the ePolicy team in its emphasis on the development of a methodology for utilising the pilot ePolicy decision support system at levels of government other than regional, in different policy areas, or even in business models in the private sector.

Scope: Cross-border, International, Local (city or municipality), National, Pan-European, Regional (sub-national)