In order to form a more perfect petition

Updated
By Shawna T Thomas
In order to form a more perfect petition
In order to form a more perfect petition

The White House is hosting a “Hackathon” near the end of the month.

You should probably dismiss the visions of hoodies huddled around a table near refrigerators stocked with Mountain Dew that are already dancing in your head. The White House has no plans to invite hordes of WoW/BSG/computer nerds over to the Casa Blanca to create the perfect denial of service attack. Instead what they’re doing is giving programmers and developers the opportunity to help the White House create a better “We the People” petition site.

Yes it comes back to the site that has brought us such responses from the administration as why the U.S. won’t be constructing a Death Star and why the White House won’t be seeking the president’s impeachment

The plan over at the White House is to roll out “Petitions 2.0” in March. Their digital team is working on making the site more searchable as well as allowing other organizations and developers to make applications that can interact with it.

The tech team’s first step on the road to 2.0 is releasing an API, or application programming interface, that will allow users to get a better handle on the information the White House is harvesting with the petitions. So if you want to know how many people from Texas are signing a particular petition, the new version of the site will allow that data to be accessed.

According to Macon Phillips, the White House Director of Digital Strategy, this is the first time the White House has launched an API, so they’re hoping developers that attend the hackathon can help them find the bugs in their program, come up with cool application ideas, and “tap into the innovation and creativity that will help We the People get better.”

So how does the programming public get involved? Sorry, you’ve already missed your chance. On Tuesday, the White House posted a blog entry explaining the February 22nd event and invited people to apply to participate. The application process closed at 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday and in that time over 120 people applied. The White House is still making a decision about how many people to invite, but the chosen should be notified by Friday. Anyone selected to participate will have to pay their own way to the daylong event.

Now I need to come clean about two things:  

  1. I was a bit cynical about the process of making the petition site even more accessible. While making it easier to search is a great idea, creating apps that allow it to interface with other websites and drive more traffic sounds like just another way to gather even more of the public’s contact information.
  2. I didn’t really know what a hackathon was.

So I called up a programming acquaintance that I know from the math and science high school I attended. Jon Allen works at a company called Grockit as a Senior Data Scientist and he described a hackathon as, “literally a bunch of people sitting in a room and talking.” They’re also coding and sharing ideas, so it turns out my mental images of hoodies and Mountain Dew weren’t too far off.

Also Allen had a much less cynical view of the White House invitation. He saw it as the administration providing ways for different types of people to be “engaged with the government.” He said, “I can’t drop my job and go to Americorp… I can’t really do Teach for America. There are certain constraints. But spending a few days building something would be something that’s exactly right up my alley.” He continued that if he didn’t already have a prior commitment that day, he would have applied.

Like me, Allen realized that there is a “large P.R. component” to the hackathon and that he wasn’t quite sure “how interacting with petition data is going to necessarily help the community.” However, he likes the concept of the White House asking for the public’s help. “I was less excited about this particular idea and more excited about, ok, they’re willing to do this. They’re willing to engage the community and have hackathons. Perhaps there’s something that will come out of this,” Allen said.

Phillips at the White House also tried to move the conversation past the public relations aspect. “The notion that we just want to collect e-mail addresses misses the larger point, which is we want to communicate with people about the things they care about,” he said.

As for the possibility that this was a front for something more sinister like a secret DARPA program*, Phillips joked in true political fashion, “You think I’d actually tell you if it was?”

*This scenario was never really a possibility. This is a joke. Chill. 

**Ironically, it appears that the actual White House Hackathon, which was partially inspired by Open Data Day, will not be open press. 

In order to form a more perfect petition

Updated