Twinkies, the Death Star, and state secession are not topics typically discussed at the White House. But because of the "We the People" petition site, the White House is now more involved in everything from postal service reform to the digitization of federal public records.
More than 6 million people have left more than 10 million signatures on the site since it launched in August 2012, according to the White House.
In part because of its popularity, the Obama administration sees the potential of a next-generation version of We the People. So next week the White House will host developers, data visualization specialists, and other technology experts to join them in the first White House Open Data Day Hackathon.
We the People 2.0 intends to make the petition data more user-friendly and more useful.
"You could theoretically analyze by location what issues people think are important where. That's one of the projects I'm hoping to propose," says Jeremy McAnally, a developer at the San Francisco-based online hosting service GitHub, who will be attending the hackathon. "We have not seen any real legislative motion yet [on the petitions], but I think we're getting there."
If a petition does lead to legislation, McAnally would like to develop a tool for We the People that would trace an issue from cultural trend to petition to law. The marijuana legalization trend became a We the People petition in September with 70,000 plus signatures, and the issue has recently gained steam in several states.
In a post to the White House blog, a deputy director in the Office of Digital Strategy Peter Welsch said the 2.0 effort will also allow users to retrieve data on petitions, signatures and responses. That step could help activists take a long list of signatures from the site and use it for their own efforts.
At present, anyone who wants that data would have to scrape it off the site.
But open government expert David Eaves says the petitions on We the People have already had impact—even the petitions that appear frivolous.
"I actually thought the Death Star petition response was totally genius. It gave the White House the opportunity to talk about education in terms the vast majority of people can understand," says Eaves, who founded International Data Day, a 90-city hackathon event the White House used as a model for its hackathon.
In its response to the Death Star petition, the White House encouraged young people to build a career in science, technology, engineering or math.
"If you were a kid who likes Star Wars, you were suddenly like 'Holy wow, I can think about engineering, and building cool stuff that may not be the Death Star, but something like it,' " says Eaves. "If you don't get that then you have a real lack of understanding about the potential of this."