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What "We the People" Petitions Say About the Country

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, July 9 2013

For almost two years, the White House’s We the People petitioning platform has allowed any cause that can attract enough signatures in 30 days — as of January the threshold is 100,000 — to receive an official White House response.

Any successful petition carries with it a lot of data about the hundred thousand people (or more) who signed, including information about where they’re from, down to their ZIP code. But it takes time and care to make sense of any data. A map highlighting signatures by state won’t give a sense of which places in the state the petition mattered most. A map that just plots signatures in different places across the county could skew towards places that just have the highest population, and not the highest community interest. To find out which areas really cared about a given petition requires a different approach, something that Code for America resident engineer Mick Thompson has attempted with Where the People.


A still from a Where the People visualization.

“The important part for me was to make a map that more accurately reflected where in the country there’s more participation in petitions,” says Thompson.

Using We the People’s API Thompson created the app at the White House’s first Open Data Day Hackathon in February. The map breaks down participation by the percentage of population in a given county, highlighting areas where the highest proportion of the community got involved.

The White House used Where the People instructively in their response to a petition asking the Westboro Baptist Church be legally labeled a hate group. In the map at the bottom of the post, a time-lapse image using Thompson's code shows activity is densest around Newtown, Conn., where Westboro threatened to picket the funerals of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, and in Kansas, the group's home state.

The same can be done for any petition via the API, although Thompson acknowledged that the coding could use some tweaks.

“Since it was done at a hackathon it definitely could be better,” he says. The project’s source code is available on GitHub, but Thompson’s next step is to create a more user friendly version that wouldn’t require massive downloads of petition data. He plans to have an updated version out by the end of the month.