Thursday, August 23, 2012

"We the Coders": White House commits open source code on Github

One small step for humans, one giant commit for mankind. The White House has open sourced its e-petitions platform on Github, fulfilling a commitment to the Open Government Partnership that the President of the United States made last September.

"…we’re launching a new online tool — called “We the People” — to allow Americans to directly petition the White House, and we’ll share that technology so any government in the world can enable its citizens to do the same." — President Barack Obama, September 20, 2011

Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital, explained the move at the White House blog, below. In the post, Phillips indicated that the roadmap for We the People includes creating an API for third party clients and more integration of social media.

In the larger sense, it’s notable that the White House is releasing software code developed for the people, back to the people, with the hopes that with the people that code base will be improved upon.

That’s a big deal, and while the White House has been making open source part of open government for some time now, from open sourcing to the IT Dashboard to contributing to Drupal, moving onto Github is a notable move. Open source is now playing an important role in open government, although it’s hardly a precondition for it. Whether it’s or moving to Drupal, middleware for open government data or codesharing with CivicCommons, open source matters more than ever.

After reading the post embedded below, you can watch an interview on open source and open government  with Chris Wanstrath, co-founder of Github. Here’s Phillips:

I’m thrilled to announce that we are publishing the source code for We the People, the online petitions system that has been a popular way for the public to connect with the White House over the past year.

Since We the People went live, thousands of petitions have gathered millions of signatures from people across the country. As those petitions have come in, the White House has posted responses about an open internet & SOPA/PIPA, puppy mills, reducing student load debt, working to fix our broken immigration system, reaffirming the President’s opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, and more.  

When President Obama talked about We the People at the Open Government Partnership last year, he promised to, “share that technology so any government in the world can enable its citizens to do the same.” Now anybody, from other countries to the smallest organizations to civic hackers can take this code and put to their own use.

One of the most exciting prospects of open sourcing We the People is getting feedback, ideas and code contributions from the public. There is so much that can be done to improve this system, and we only benefit by being able to more easily collaborate with designers and engineers around the country - and the world. Here are a few favorites from the roadmap in the README doc:

*API Development*

The current platform requires users visit the site directly in order to create or sign a petitions via the We the People website. We would like to develop an API that would allow users to sign a petition via a third party website, but with some level of verification that confirms a valid email address to potentially receive a response. 

Developing an API would greatly expand the appeal of this tool, allowing other organizations to control the user experience and flow for petitions within their own environment while still registering verified signatures against a We the People threshold.

*Improved Social Media Integration*

The current platform allows basic sharing of petitions, responses and other content on the site via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In the future, we would like reduce the friction of signing a petition by making it possible to sign a petition in the context of a social network (e.g. by “liking” an object on facebook). 

*Mobile interface*

Whether through a mobile browser or standalone application, We the People should be accessible through mobile devices given the large and increasing portion of mobile traffic on the web.

But the bigger potential comes from the fact that the source code for the application has been released in a way that allows anybody to download a copy, make changes, and use it for their own projects. So we’re just as excited to see where others take it.

If you’re a Drupal developer and have an interest in using We the People or contributing to its development, check out the code and let us know. We’d also love to learn about how you’re using the code for your own projects, so drop us a line @WHWeb on Twitter. Or hit me up directly @macon44.

In addition, this is our team’s first big release of code (we’ve got a few things up here), and we’re eager for feedback about how best to engage the open-source community generally. So suggestions on our overall approach are greatly appreciated as well.

UPDATE: Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, blogged about the release and welcomed the White House contributing to Drupal code. 

In October of 2009, was relaunched on Drupal. Two years later, the White House launched We the People on Drupal, a big step forward for Open Government. While governments haven’t traditionally recognized the importance of the grassroots, word of mouth organizing that thrives on the Internet, We the People encourages grassroots citizen engagement.

We the people

Even more exciting is that if you are an Open Source developer, you can get involved with improving how your government actually works. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to see Open Source and Drupal changing the world in a positive, powerful way.

The newly released code is packaged as a Drupal install profile. The profile is currently tailored to the White House’s website but every Github member can issue pull requests to make it more generally useful. The Petition install profile can be cloned, forked or downloaded from the White House’s Github repository.


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