We the People, the Obama administration's online petitions platform, turned 3 yesterday.
On September 22, 2011, we launched We the People to give Americans a new way to petition their government around issues they care about. It works like this: Start a petition, get enough signatures, and the Obama administration will work with policy experts to issue an official response.
It's three years later, and We the People remains incredibly popular: More than 15 million users have participated, collecting more than 22 million signatures on more than 360,000 petitions. To date, we've issued nearly 250 responses to petitions on a wide range of topics, including maintaining an open and innovative internet, reducing student loan debt, improving our economy, and even building a "Death Star."
The We the People platform has led directly to policy changes and provided new opportunities for dialogue between citizens and their government. That's part of the reason why, over the course of 2014, an average of response surveys showed a majority of signers thought it was "helpful to hear the Administration's response," even if they didn't agree. Nearly 80 percent said they would use We the People again.
To celebrate We the People's third birthday, the White House will host the first-ever social meetup for We the People users and petition creators right here at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It will be an exciting chance for users to meet with policy experts and connect with each other in person.
Meanwhile, we continue to work to make We the People even more accessible so that people -- no matter where they are on the internet -- can use the platform to reach the White House. Beginning in October, third-party websites can submit signatures to We the People on behalf of their own signers, using our soon-to-be-released Write API (which is currently in beta). It's the result of months of hard work, and we can't wait to share it with the public.
Check out the infographic below, and take a look at some of the platform's highlights over the last three years:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
– The First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Those words from our Constitution's First Amendment guarantee the right to petition your government. And with the launch of We the People, we provided Americans with a brand new way to do it.
In the early hours of September 22, 2011, we flipped the switch and turned on We the People. We had no idea what to expect, and over the course of the first 24 hours, nearly 60,000 users had joined the site and signed a petition -- and eight had already reached the initial threshold for response (5,000 signatures at the time). We were blown away.
We the People was live for less than a month before users submitted more than 1 million signatures.
On October 26, 2011 -- just a month after launch -- one of President Obama's top education advisors, Roberto Rodriguez, issued the first response to a petition created through We the People. Here are the first few lines:
Thank you for taking the time to participate in the "We the People" petition process. We launched this online tool as a way of hearing directly from you, and are pleased that you have responded by presenting this idea. We agree that reducing the burden of student loans is an effective way to stimulate the economy and save taxpayer dollars. That's why we're excited to announce a new policy that speaks to the concerns expressed in this petition.
In January 2012, the White House responded to two petitions about legislative approaches to combat online piracy. In their response, the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator for National Security Staff stress that the important task of protecting intellectual property online must not threaten an open and innovative internet.
When President Obama talked about We the People at a meeting of the Open Government Partnership in 2011, he promised to "share that technology so any government in the world can enable its citizens to do the same." When we published the source code to We the People, it opened up a world of possibility: Anybody, from other countries to the smallest organizations to civic hackers, can take this code and put it to their own use.
After the tragedy in Newtown, more than 300,000 people wrote in to tell us what they thought about gun violence, and President Obama personally responded to the petition in a video. And as the Administration has taken steps to prevent gun violence, we've gone back to those signers with updates on the process.
You petitioned us to begin construction on a "Death Star." Our space policy experts thought that wasn't a great idea, but shared some projects the U.S. government is working on that are futuristic nonetheless. Did you know NASA has floating robotic assistants working on the International Space Station, and two spacecraft leaving the Solar System?
The response, full of Star Wars references, was an instant hit: It gained huge attention on sites like Reddit and in the news, and is the White House's most popular piece of content to date. More than 3 million unique visitors read the response in the week it was released. Many of those readers followed our links touting NASA's important work, and the ways in which the Obama administration has worked to get more Americans involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
On February 22, 2013, we welcomed 21 programmers and tech experts to the White House. They spent the day working alongside our own tech development team. Their goal was simple: to build tools using a new Read API, a WhiteHouse.gov feature that opens up We the People data to anyone who wants to use it. For nine hours, these two groups clustered around each other's laptops, solving problems, sharing ideas, sharing code, and asking questions.
The Read API makes our public data available to anyone who wants to build new tools and draw lessons from the platform. And in June, we released that API to the public. Check out the API gallery to see some of the incredible visualization work that users have come up with.
In December 2011, the USDA announced that it supported an update to the Animal Welfare Act, the focus of a petition on "puppy mills." Over the next year and a half, we kept petition signers involved in the regulatory process -- alerting them to a chance to comment on proposed regulation, and alerting them when the rule-making process was finalized:
When you petitioned us to regulate so-called puppy mills, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule that would update that "retail pet stores" definition. After huge amounts of public input, the USDA has finalized that ruling -- and is bringing more animals under the protection of the Animal Welfare Act.
This update marked an important We the People milestone: A petition kicked off a rule-making process that ended with new regulation that was good for animals, and good for consumers.
We're always working to make We the People easier to use. In June, we took the next step with a redesign that makes it dramatically easier to sign petitions.
We call the new process "simplified signing," and it takes the account-creation step out of signing a petition. Now, just enter your basic information, confirm your signature via email, and you're done. That's it.
The redesign itself is actually built on top of our Write API -- part of our development team's efforts to make the API available to others outside the White House.
On August 1, 2014, President Obama signed a bill into law that again made it legal for consumers to unlock their cell phones in order to take them to a carrier that best suits their needs -- and it started with a petition.
It marked the very first time a We the People petition led to a legislative fix.
The process started in 2013, when internet activists petitioned us to reverse a decision by the Library of Congress that made it illegal for consumers to unlock their cell phone. We leapt into action and announced our support for the petition's call: Consumers should be able to use their devices on a network of their choice.
Officials followed up that 2013 response by working with the FCC and wireless carriers to reach voluntary agreements that would give consumers greater choice. Meanwhile, our calls to action were heeded by Congress -- where Sen. Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked with the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to introduce joint legislation that restored the DMCA exemption. That's legislation that President Obama signed this past August.