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Looking Back at the White House Hackathon

On February 22nd, we held a hackathon where participants built tools based on the new API for We the People, the White House petitions system.

On February 22nd, we welcomed twenty one programmers and tech experts to the White House and invited them to spend the day working alongside seven members of our own development team. Their goal was simple: to build tools using the new API for We the People, the White House petitions system, and contribute example code to a software development kit (SDK). For nine hours, these two groups clustered around each other's laptops, solving problems, sharing ideas, sharing code, and asking questions. 

This was the first White House Open Data Day Hackathon. 

A week before the event, we gave the participants access to a private repository on GitHub so they could read documentation, introduce themselves, and begin thinking about their projects. (Here's the official White House GitHub profile.) As each API method became available, the hackers got to work, opening bug reports and chewing over questions with the White House team. 

By the time the sun set over Washington on the 22nd, sixteen people got up to share their projects with a room packed with other hackers and guests from around the White House. Among them was Mick Thompson, who created Where the People, a time-lapse visualization of zip codes where petitions are being signed, weighted for signatures by percentage of population. Douglas Back built Widget the People, a tool that lets you create an embeddable thermometer showing how many signatures your petition needs before it reaches the response threshold. Catherine D'Ignazio developed an embeddable map that shows where signatures came from, right down to the zip code level. Yoni Ben-Meshulam's R We the People is a package for the R statistics environment that allows users to generate word clouds and visualize the issues that petitions are created about over time. Other projects included a dashboard that predicts when petitions will cross the 100,000 signature threshold, documentation and step-by-step primers on using the API, email alert systems that inform you when a petition on an issue you care about has been created, and more. 

During the hackathon Todd Park, United States Chief Technology Officer, spoke to the value of collaboration by invoking Joy's Law. "No matter who you are," he said, "you have to remember that most of the smartest people in the world work for somebody else." On the 22nd, we were lucky to have these folks with us for the day:

Douglas Back Iqbal Mohomed
Yoni Ben-Meshulam Erik Ogan
Jeff Casimir Sheldon Rampton
Scott Chacon Andrew Riley
Catherine D'Ignazio Devon Rollins
Robert Eickmann Mick Thompson
Steve Fernholz Kyle Vanderbeek
Jackie Kazil Justin Vincent
Arthi Krishnaswami Maggie Wachs
Matthew Loff Chris Wilson
Jeremy McAnally  

By letting this group of smart people work with an early version of the API, by helping them come up with their own ideas and bring them to life, we found ways to make both We the People and its API better. Some of the projects from the hackathon will be released as open source code, or incorporated into We the People itself, but all of them helped the team from the White House find ways to make the API more flexible, better documented, and easier to use when it's officially released.

While the White House Open Data Day Hackathon is over, the conversation about We the People's API continues because there's now a community of developers working with it. If you're interested in working with it, too, tell us about your ideas. We're excited to hear them.