Open government often carries a significant risk to activists: organizing efforts may be “locked up” by Federal agencies, even with the best intentions.
The rewards, and risks, of squirreling away
Consider Terra Ziporyn Snider. Last fall, she initiated a petition on the White House website requesting changes in school start times. Then current White House rules required that she gather 5000 signatures within 30 days in order to keep the petition on the site. She and her supporters encountered various technical problems – intermittent site outages, difficulty in signing up new users — and as the deadline approached, with 1575 signatures recorded, Dr. Snider realized that the fruit of her efforts was about to be digitally vanished, per White House rules.
I was taken by the lengths she went to transplant the list of names she had built at the White House to Move-On. Though these signatures had been gathered through her online organizing efforts, and of course were stored on a hard drive somewhere in the whitehouse.gov domain, she had no way to access these data easily. Instead, she printed out the petition and, apparently, retyped the signatures by hand.
Imagine a New England squirrel storing away nuts for next winter in the trunk of a tourist’s car – it’s secure today, tomorrow, and perhaps even next week, but when the snow comes, the car — and the nuts — are in Florida, and the squirrel starves.
Of course, in the case of White House petitions, the potential of reaching a wider audience for your cause and of getting the attention of the Obama administration may make this risk worthwhile.
But, as Dr. Snider found, sometimes the car drives away, and you’ve got to scramble not to be left empty-handed. How could one reduce the risk, particularly for activists who don’t know or don’t have access to sites live Move-On?
A tool for liberating signatures
Her story was my inspiration to build a page scraping toolset that would allow activists to get the benefits of White House web petitions, while reducing the risk.
As a proof of concept, I set the plugin to work on two recent petitions. The first requests that the Administration rescind regulations mandating that religious institutions provide contraceptive coverage under their employee health insurance plans, even if this is contrary to their religious precepts. The second urges the Administration to “stand strong” in maintaining this mandate.
In this post, I’ll focus on the signature data from the “Rescind” petition. A follow-up post will provide details on the “Stand strong” petition signatures. [Update 3/2/2012: I've posted the "Stand strong" results and a state by state comparison.}
If you're familiar with the mechanics of the White House petition site, skip to the next section for the results.
The mechanics of initiating and signing petitions
Anyone may initiate a petition. Per the rules currently in force, new petitions are visible only to those web visitors who already know the specific petition URL. Once a petition receives its 150th signature, it is listed by the White House in the index of current petitions and can be found by appropriate search terms.
The initiator and all other petition supporters then have 30 days to gather at least 25000 signatures in total. If they fail to reach that threshold within 30 days, the petition disappears, as Dr Snider experienced. If 25000 people "sign" the petition, the White House promises to post a response.
A WhiteHouse.gov login is required to sign a petition. To get a login, you provide your email address, your name, and, optionally, city, state and zipcode. Each petition signature block includes the first name and last initial, the signature's order in the overall total, the date the signature was provided, and the city and state of the signer, if provided. For instance:
Chris B Washington, DC February 22, 2012 Signature # 1,079
Example: Signature data from the "Rescind" petition
From January 28 through February 10, the Rescind petition gathered 29,127 signatures. The inset below displays the raw data gathered by the page scraping toolset, which can also be downloaded by the link at the bottom of the table.
Download as csv file (1.1 mb).
More detailed analysis shows
- that the petition took off pretty quickly – two signatures on day one, 32 on day two, 1,386 on day three (reaching all fifty states and DC)
- that state participation varied dramatically: Nebraska provided more than 480 signatures per million residents, North Dakota more than 360, while Mississippi provided just 31 signatures per million inhabitants. (Overall, across the US, 127 signatures were provided per million residents, if we assume that all signatures came from the United States.)
- 4,951 signatures were provided by people who did not state their location — which shows up as NULL in the data.
Next post: How does the signature flow for the “stand strong” petition compare? What surprises do we find when we compare states’ activity on these two opposing petitions? Are these signers as reluctant to provide place information as the Rescind signers?
A postscript for data geeks
- Each signature is numbered. The same sequence number may appear multiple times on the signatures page, indicating, presumably, two or more different people who signed almost simultaneously. For instance, if the third, fourth, and fifth signers all acted simultaneously, the first six signatures would be numbered 1, 2,3,3,3,6.
- One Rescind signer was particularly eager: he signed twice in quick succession, so his name and place show up twice in a row with the same sequence number. This anomaly can’t be tracked by the software currently, leading to a database count of 29,126 signatures, one less than shown on the White House site.
- In addition to the “no location” signatures, 28 people provided place information for military post offices or mistyped their place information.
- The scraping tool captures the first name and initial of the signer as shown on the petition, but I’ve omitted this column from the download for the moment.