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The open petition tool We the People is the single most effective attempt to engage the public by the White House under President Obama. It’s dead simple: create a petition on any topic you like: (“Legally Recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a Hate Group” has 356,860 signatures, while getting the president to do a coin toss at an Ultimate Frisbee game has 204). Collect enough signatures and the White House pledges an official response—even if your petition asks them to build a Star Wars-style Death Star.

Since We the People’s launch in 2009, 8.2 million users have contributed 13 million signatures on over 200,000 petitions. It’s a testament to the tool’s popularity that the threshold for triggering an official reply has been raised twice, from 5,000 to 25,000 to 100,000.

"It started because a lot of us had worked in online advocacy groups and saw a problem," says Macon Phillips, the White House Director of Digital Strategy. "There were many petitions out there, but the connection with the target wasn’t that strong."

Now the White House is opening up the We the People dialogue, with the official release today of a Read API that allows independent developers to create applications using petition data. On February 22, they held a hackathon in which developers from GitHub, Code for America, Blue State Digital, and more created apps like a Google alert-style petition tracker, and a mapper using zip codes provided by petition signers that shows how signatures spread across the country.

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