Direct from the White House: APIs are key to extending platforms

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Transparency in government

To a technology director at the White House, the State of the Union is like the Superbowl. While the world is watching the President of the United States deliver an address to the nation, Leigh Heyman and his team are managing the media technology behind the scenes to create an enhanced and interactive experience for the viewers. How many of you watched the State of the Union on YouTube this year?

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As the Director of New Media Technologies at the Executive Office of the President, Heyman uses strong leadership to chart new technical territory for the White House. If you ever get to meet him in person, the first thing that will likely grab your attention is the presidential lapel pin on his suit. It's a little intimidating, but his broad smile and confident handshake tell the whole story.

It's one of confidence and openness, and it's what struck me when I met Heyman for the first time at the Palmetto Open Source Conference in Columbia, South Carolina. He was presenting a talk about We The People, the White House online petition platform. It is one of many tech projects with a nod towards a more open and transparent government that Heyman and his team have led, including which runs on Drupal and various White House hackathons held at the White House itself.

Though no less extraordinary, it's somewhat old news that the White House has been using open source technologies in it's efforts. At DrupalCon San Francisco, the White House revealed their first contributions to Drupal. What's exciting now is they are consistently giving back to open source projects and writing web APIs.

This marks a new era for the government's relationship with open source, and is due in part to the work the New Media Technologies team does to promote a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government.

In this interview, Leigh Heyman gives me some of the backstory on how he came to work for the Executive Office of the President and some fun facts about the famous Death Star Petition. He also discusses recent new media projects at the White House, shedding light on how they might live beyond the current administration and forge a new relationship with US citizens.

Interview Q&A

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how you came work for the Executive Office of the President?

I was hired as one of the first employees of a tech startup called Blue State Digital, which started out building online tools for political candidates. In the early days I was their only system administrator, although over time I grew the team. We were eventually hired by then-senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign to build and host most of the online features the site eventually became known for and that became hallmarks of the campaign. As a result of that success, when it came time to start filling technical roles in the administration, it was only natural that they hired in some people from the campaign. Although it would be a little while before they needed someone like me, the time eventually came that they were looking to broaden their open source presence, as well as start exploring cloud-based options. So, in the spring of 2011, one of my former colleagues who was then at the White House, reached out to me to gauge my interest and of course I jumped at the chance.

What were some of the considerations in starting the White House GitHub account and allowing code contributions?

Most of the concerns were not strictly related to GitHub, but around our open source presence in general. Given that open source development, especially on platforms like GitHub,, and others is essentially a form of social networking, a lot of the same issues need to be addressed as organizations engage with the larger community on those platforms. Because of that similarity, we were able to build off existing social networking policies to guide our engineers' interactions with the open source community.

From there we updated our guidelines for naming conventions, issue comments, and commit messages, and added a step to our QA process for flagging things that might need additional review—basically any issue comments or commit messages that go beyond a specific technical issue, or that address questions of policy, process, objectives, or timeline.

What have been some of the outcomes from the hackathons hosted at the White House?

Since pictures (and videos) speak louder than words, you can have a look at a gallery of many of the projects from our hackathons on our We the People platform.

In addition to those fantastic projects, we've been approached by a few other agencies for advice on hosting hackathons of their own. As we approach our third White House hackathon later this month, we believe we've developed a model for hackathons (code sprints, codeathons, jams, name your pleasure) that works well as an example for government agencies working on open source projects like ours.

What are some of the fun facts about the Death Star petition submitted on We The People?

The day we published the response, January 12, 2013, was the White House's third busiest day on record, and the response itself remains one of the busier pages on our site.

While we had some fun with the response, we also recognized a "teaching moment" when we saw one. So, as you read through it you'll see it's filled with lots of interesting information about U.S. space programs, astronomy, advanced medical research, and even the White House Science Fair. The page has helped drive hundreds of thousands of visitors to various NASA sites and many others. For example, did you know you can sign up for email or text message alerts when the International Space Station is going to be flying over you?

What measures have been taken to ensure open access and open data will continue to be a part of the Executive Office of the President?

I believe, and I think many of my colleagues agree, that APIs are really a big factor here, not just for the EOP, but government-wide. The first two directives of the Digital Government Strategy advise agencies to make data and content available through Web APIs. Beyond simplifying access to public data and services, APIs by their very nature encourage people and organizations outside the government to invest time and effort to building platforms that use those APIs, and once that happens on a large scale it becomes very hard to simply turn them off.


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Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.

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