Innovations, New Clients Promise an Exciting 2018

Thomas Mullen
December 29, 2017

Every business has that year when groundswell becomes growth. When prospects begin turning predictably into projects. When they’re able to stop worrying about getting clients and instead focus exclusively on delighting them.

At SmartComment, 2017 was that year. With thousands of projects and users across the country using our public comment software, we’re both thrilled and humbled that so many project leads are turning to us to help manage public comments related to their most critical infrastructure efforts and public engagement campaigns.

In the past year, we’ve worked with environmental and transportation agencies, city planning staffs and local organizations, massive engineering firms and local consultants–all the while collecting new insights and methods for engaging with the public and managing their all-important input.

We’re proud to say that working hand-in-hand with all these clients has led to a wide range of new system improvements and experience that we’re using to make our future projects even more efficient, effective and accessible. Below is a brief rundown of some of the new capabilities we added to our public engagement software in 2017. Some came directly from a client idea or suggestion; others were a direct result of sharing in the diverse and interesting work our clients undertake every day. However, all of them are making life easier for our clients and the citizens they serve–and have us excited to see where the next year can take us!

Dashboard Redesign

Consider this the digital equivalent of improving your curb appeal. We did a thorough refreshing of the dashboard interface our clients work with every day, including brighter colors, bigger graphics and more intuitive charts. Getting an up-to-the-second count of the array of topics covered in your comments has never looked so good!

New PDF Extraction Capabilities

It’s a cold fact of life for a project team gathering public comments: some PDFs that come in as submissions were converted from images and simply will not let you highlight and copy their text to be broken into individual comments–until now. SmartComment’s new optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities allow users to pull the text out of any PDF so they never have to retype a single word while inputting comments into the SmartComment system. With the click of a button in our Comment Manager, the contents of any PDF are converted into plain text in a separate window so they can be easily copied and pasted into your project’s comment management database. This new way to convert PDFs to plain text is bound to be a huge relief for anyone on the front lines of a team-wide comment management effort who has experienced the pain of a PDF that’s immune to conventional text extraction.

New Ways to Add a Comment

Thanks to our new OCR tool, SmartComment users will now have multiple options for parsing a submission from a member of the public into individual comments reflecting topics specific to a project. Like before, users will still be able to use our bracketing tool to signify where individual comments begin and end within a single letter or email. But now they’ll also be able to copy text from the original submission–no matter its origin–and paste it into a series of text boxes for each individual comment contained in the submission. With one quick pass, you can quickly break a single submission into an unlimited number of comments, give each a topic, and even assign it to a specific team member–all in the same window. As always, each comment will travel through SmartComment accompanied by the original PDF from which it was rendered, making re-bracketing a breeze.

Hide Inactive Projects

As new features go, this is a small but brilliant one that actually came from one of our environmental clients. With this innovation, a client managing multiple ongoing projects–for example, a transportation agency that handles dozens of highway projects per year with SmartComment–can simply hide a dormant or completed project from the list of active projects they’re working on. The project and its data will continue to exist in SmartComment, but will no longer appear on the menu of projects they see when they click on the Project Manager.

Instantly Upload Comments from Excel File

Importing a single electronic comment into SmartComment is straightforward enough. But what if you get a spreadsheet from an organization or other group that contains dozens (or even thousands) of comments from their individual members? This exact scenario–faced by many of our clients–led to this year’s introduction of our new Excel Import tool. It allows our clients to instantly upload a spreadsheet into SmartComment, which automatically breaks the rows into separate submissions from the individuals included in the spreadsheet. From there, you just have to parse the various submissions into specific topics–and they’re ready for responses. Simple, right?

Create a Summary Response or Contact List

Since our clients are in dozens of states and cover a gamut of industries–from education to healthcare to the environment–it’s not surprising that they have very different needs when it comes to how they organize and present comment responses. Many of our clients are legally required to provide responses to each comment individually–a  comprehensive effort that SmartComment was designed to support from the beginning. In addition to this, we now offer the ability for a client to export all comments for a given topic and provide a single summary response to the entire category. SmartComment users can also instantly create a spreadsheet of contact information for a project’s commenters for purposes of further outreach or information.

These innovations are definitely exciting. But the real growth we experienced in 2017 was in our relationships with our clients. Working side-by-side, we provided a better way for the public to provide input and get an answer to a wide variety of occurrences: city planning efforts, beachfront developments, sidewalk improvements, healthcare standards, pipeline proposals–even issues with a local golf course.

We met new faces at conferences like the ECOS meeting of environmental regulators in Wyoming, at public hearings from Los Angeles to Colorado, and in offices and conference rooms from Washington D.C. to Washington state. Along the way, we continued to ask questions, get new ideas, and see new sides to the issues affecting all of us.

And we can’t wait to do even more of it in the new year.