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e-petitions: open source, open data and getting trendy!

Pete Herlihy, product owner for e-petitions talks about recent developments, sharing the code base and opening up the data.

This week we delivered on earlier commitments to share e-petitions data and to release the code base.  Whilst not as visible as other recent changes we have made, these are two very important developments.

Open source code

We benefit so much from the use of open source software and it is really important for us to give back.  There has been considerable interest in the e-petitions code base from as far afield as the governments of Montenegro and Chile. This week we shared the code base in a public repository for exploration and reuse.  We will continue to push our code into this public repository as we iterate e-petitions in the future and we’d love to hear from anyone that uses this code to build new and interesting things.

Sharing the e-petitions data

Late last Friday, 25th May (I know, I know, deploying on a Friday afternoon o_O), we opened up the e-petitions data via an API.  This API opens up data for others to analyse, interpret and mash-up alongside other data in ways that they want.  A great blog post on demonstrates the sort of thing that quickly can be put together, to make some interesting visualisations using this data.  This is undoubtedly the first of many such representations and shows the value that making these data sets public can yield.

Details on how to access this data are found on the e-petitions FAQs. I’m really hoping that people will continue to build interesting things using this data and share them with us.

Getting trendy

e-petitions became trendy.  It happened with the press of a button.  I’m not talking about a sudden surge in popularity, but the introduction of a new feature on the site’s homepage, revealing trending petitions - those with the most signatures in the previous hour.

This is one of a number of enhancements that we’ve made to e-petitions as a result of feedback from the people using the service and those administering it.  This trending feature is one of the more prominent changes we’ve made.  It also serves the important purpose of raising awareness of some petitions that might not otherwise be noticed, when the standard view was only of those with the highest signature count.


Responsive design is flavour of the month, and for good reason.  However, there is a danger of people introducing this to their sites simply because they can and because it’s the ‘new shiny’ thing, not because of a user driven need for it.  This isn’t to say a site shouldn’t render well on all device types, but that is a different thing from optimising for a range of different sizes.

In the case of e-petitions, this user need is clear, 14% of our visitors access the site from their mobile phones and this number is on the increase.

We have introduced a responsive design for mobile phone screen sizes, which makes the site a lot easier to use when out and about.

Phonetics (foh-net-iks)

One of the technical areas of e-petitions that was a bit of a vulnerability, especially under huge load, was the performance of our search platform.  We were using a disproportionate amount of processing power to run our search.  Our search platform was a pretty old version of Apache Solr and were using fuzzy searching to help deal with spelling mistakes.  This was effective, but hungry.  So we upgraded Solr to the latest released version and replaced fuzzy searching with phonetic searching.  This resulted in a significantly faster search and an impressive five-fold increase in the number of concurrent searches we could complete.  Effectively removing this vulnerability completely.

Thanks to the guys at @FlaxSearch who helped us with this and have blogged about this in a little more technical detail.

Behind the scenes

We also made a significant number of changes on the admin/moderation side of things. This included enhanced reporting and better searching and findability of e-petitions. This will allow faster and more accurate moderation and monitoring of e-petitions.  These were features we have wanted to add for a while, but in the spirit of agility, they weren’t the next highest priority stories - until now, so thanks to colleagues across government for your patience!

The post wouldn’t be complete without a shout out to Agile Delivery Network especially @chrismdp and the team at @ubxd for your development skills and superbness.

Pete Herlihy (@yahoo_pete) is the product owner for e-petitions at Government Digital Service.

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