Building On “We the People” At The First White House Hackathon

Mar 06, 2013

On February 22, I spent the day with 20 other developers participating in the first-ever White House Open Data Day Hackathon.

On February 22, I spent the day with 20 other developers participating in the first-ever White House Hackathon. The purpose of the Hackathon, which coincided with Open Data Day, was to create projects that used a newly developed API for the We the People petition site.

We the People allows anyone to petition the federal government online about any issue they choose. The White House will respond to any petition that meets a signature threshold within 30 days (now 100,000). As of today, the administration has issued over 100 responses, which span from cheeky to substantive.

When I heard about the Hackathon, my ears perked up. I’d worked on a project last December that mapped signatures on a petition calling for more gun control in the wake of the Newtown shooting. The process involved scraping the website for petition data, which was tedious, followed by several hours of getting the data into a useable format. An API would mean less time collecting and formatting data, and more time building projects — something that would be exciting for BSD.

The initial set of API methods are limited to reading data; there isn’t a way (yet) to create or sign petitions outside of We the People. But even a set of read API methods opened up different ways of visualizing the hundreds of petitions or hundreds of thousands of signatures.

When planning my project, I started thinking about ways to make the petitions more broadly accessible and how organizations could use We the People to achieve their goals. Many of our clients are interested in contacting the president, and some organize campaigns using our advocacy tool to do just that. Yet the promise of a response to a successful petition is something that only We the People can offer.

One thing missing from We the People at the moment is a way to easily promote a petition outside of the White House’s website. I decided I’d build a way for petition creators to promote them on their own websites. My project, Widget the People (github repo), took shape as a Node.js app that allows users to search for a petition by title and then get code for an embeddable widget to promote the petition. The widget displays a progress meter that shows how many signatures the petition has received and a link to sign the petition. And when the White House issues a response, the widget will automatically update and provide a link to the response.

Several other projects focused on providing ways of working with the API in various languages — Ruby, Python, Node.js, and R among them — while others created stunning visualizations, including one from Mick Thompson from Code for America.

From opening government data to the public through, to maintaining a Github account, I love where the White House is going. I’m very excited about the months to come, what the write API can offer, and what other technologies the government might open to outside development.

Douglas Back is a Senior Front-end Web Developer in our New York office. He managed to snag @douglas on Twitter, but you’ll have to find him at douglasback on Github.