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White House Announces a Major Upgrade to "We the People" Petition Site

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, February 5 2013

The White House's "We the People" online petition site will soon get a read-only application programming interface, with a write API in development, White House Deputy Director of Online Platform Peter Welsch announced Tuesday in a blog post.

This means that developers will soon be able to build applications that display information about petitions, signatures, and responses. When the White House releases its write API, organizations like SignOn.org or Change.org will likely be able to collect and submit signatures to a White House petition from their own websites — potentially keeping copies of the email addresses for themselves.

Launched in 2011, We the People allows users to submit a petition to the White House and then go out to drum up supporters. When petitioners reach an ever-changing signature threshold, now at 100,000 names, the White House promises to get back to them with a response. The official answer is emailed directly to them and posted on the White House website.

Critics have sniped at the project recently because, as more people have found out about the platform, some fundamentally unserious petitions crossed the threshold. But the White House has been using some communications jujitsu. A petition calling for the U.S. to build a Death Star became an opportunity to flog NASA's space program. Responding to another one that urged CNN host Piers Morgan's deportation for his comments on gun control, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asked for a little more faith in the First Amendment — and snuck in a note about President Barack Obama's support for the Second Amendment, too.

The promise of an honest-to-goodness interaction with the White House has drawn two million new users in the last two months of 2012 alone, Welsch wrote. But it hasn't allowed organizations to link their users into the White House system, keeping the time-worn practice of online petitioning to little more than email list-building exercises. Beyond all the ways a developer could make use of the read API — tracking petitions that are removed, for instance, displaying brand-new petitions, or analyzing petitions and connecting ones with common characteristics like similar keywords — a write API would change that.

The read API is scheduled for release in March 2013. The White House has not announced a release date for the write API. The administration is hosting a hackathon on Feb. 22 and will offer API access to developers taking part, Welsch wrote. The deadline to apply is Feb. 6 at 5 p.m.

This post has been updated to fix a typo.

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