Watch: Hackers Experiment With White House "We The People" API

In 2011, the White House launched its online petition tool, We The People, which allows users to create and collect signatures for petitions within a wide range of topic areas. If a petition gains enough signatures, the White House will pledge an official response. Since its launch, 200,000 petitions have been created, racking up 13 million signatures.

In February, the White House opened the tool's Read API, allowing independent developers to create applications using petition data. Leigh Heyman, Director of New Media Technologies at the White House, says they're working on a Write API, which would "allow individuals to collect and submit signatures from their own platforms without directly sending users to We the People."

In the mean time, the White House invited a group of developers to participate in a hackathon to create apps with whatever data they could find within the millions of signatures. The resulting projects show great potential for the API. One of the most popular tools, created by Mick Thompson, shows where on the national map specific petitions are getting their support from:

The map provides a time-lapse view of where signatures are coming from, taking population size into account. Thompson used as an example a petition to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group; his tool showed most of the petition's support came from Newtown, Connecticut, where the church protested following the November shootings, and near the church's headquarters in Topeka, Kansas.

Here are some more interesting projects created during the hackathon:

Yoni Ben-Meshulam's project classified petitions by number of signatures, differentiating them in a visualization using size and color. He concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that foreign policy petitions get little to no response. He also turned titles of petitions into word clouds, highlighting which terms appear the most in the titles and the body of specific petitions. A cloud generated from all the petition titles revealed words like "United," "Stop," "Recognize," and "Marijuana."

Scott Chacon created a tool that allows users to search through petitions for keywords they might be interested in, flag those phrases and words, and then get an email when anything new happens with that petition, much like a Google Alert. Users can also be alerted when a new petition on a specific topic is created.

Iqbal Mohamaed would like to make it easier for novice developers to pull data from the White House petition page API, so he created a library of the data through programming language Python which will fetch the data for you—and then visualize it on a map to show which states have sent the most signatures to a specific campaign.

Sheldon Rampton created a tool that allows users to embed a petition thermometer on their website. The thermometer shows how many signatures a specific petition still needs.

Chris Wilson wondered if there are "super signers" who sign numerous, similar petitions. His tool mapped signatures for petitions that have the same underlying message, by signatory's initials and zip code. He then diagrammed those connections, showing that many of the more conspiratorial petitions were often supported or created by the same person.

Douglas Back's tool allows people to embed a "petition promoter" on their website to show others what petitions they are supporting. The widget displays the petition's deadline, its current signature count, and how many more signatures it needs to succeed. When clicked, the petition promoter allows users to add their signature to the cause. Eventually, users will be able to copy and paste the petition promoter code on a website of their choice, and customize the widget's appearance.

Jeff Casimir's goal was to make it easy for novice programmers, journalists, or citizen activists, who perhaps aren't familiar with APIs, to navigate the White House petition data feed. He provides introductory tutorials that explain what an API is, and gives instructions on how to ensure you're able to work with one.

Catherine D’Ignazio created an embeddable widget that acts as a real-time petition monitor. It checks a specific petition's API every few seconds and displays the signature count. The other tool D'Ignazio created is a mapping widget that allows people to search for a petition and see how many people, either per zip code or per state, have signed a petition. This mapping widget is also easily embeddable.

Mobile Developer Rob Eickman wanted to create an official "We The People" mobile app. His end product allows users to flag topics and get mobile push-notifications on those topics, as well as allowing people to collect signatures through their phone.

Andrew Riley created a tool he's calling "Pulse." It helps users find "the next big thing" by showing which petitions are growing the fastest, and which are closest to reaching their signature threshold. It also creates word clouds next to each petition. This tool could be used to help White House staff prepare a statement for petitions they know will gain enough signatures, or allow non-government agencies to filter by issue, to see which petitions in their sector are gaining traction.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the We The People platform launched in 2009. It launched in 2011.

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