White House offers 'We The People' petition app under open source license

It is the first big code release by the White House development team, its director said

Credit: Matt H. Wade (Creative Commons).

Credit: Matt H. Wade (Creative Commons).

The source code of "We The People," the online system that can be used by citizens to submit their petitions to the White House, is being offered as open source software, an official said on Thursday.

"Now anybody, from other countries to the smallest organizations to civic hackers can take this code and put to their own use," wrote Macon Philips, director of digital strategy in a post on the White House blog. It is the first big code release by his team, he added.

We The People is based on the Drupal open source content management platform, and was used to file petitions against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two controversial bills that prompted widespread online protests because of their potential to censor parts of the Internet. Petitions that reach 25,000 signatures within 30 days get an official response from President Barack Obama's administration, as happened in the case of SOPA and PIPA.

Since We The People went live in September 2011, thousands of petitions have gathered millions of signatures from people across the country, Philips said. "One of the most exciting prospects of open sourcing We the People is getting feedback, ideas and code contributions from the public," wrote Philips, adding that there is much that can be done to improve the system. By offering the platform in open source, Philips hopes to benefit from easy collaboration with designers and engineers across the U.S. and the rest of the world.

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, Philips said. The code was posted on GitHub, a code repository that allows people to share code and work on code together, and was licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2 or later.

Drupal developers who contribute to the project have to grant a world-wide, royalty-free, perpetual, and irrevocable, non-exclusive, transferable license to all users under the terms of the GPL2 license.

The team at the White House is also planning to improve the software themselves. We The People is still seen as work in progress that currently exists at a very basic level of functionality, according to a road map.

One of the main priorities is to develop an application programming interface (API) that will allow users to sign a petition via a third-party website. The current platform requires users to visit the site directly in order to create or sign a petition. The White House tech team is also planning to improve social media integration that goes further then basic sharing of the petitions. It wants to make it possible for people to sign a petition by for example using the 'Like' feature on Facebook.

The tech group at the White House is also working on a mobile interface for We The People to make the service accessible to mobile traffic on the web.

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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