April 18, 2014 | By rainey Reitman

Dear Web Developers: Thank You, You’re Awesome, and Wow Did That Really Just Happen?

Two days ago, we asked web developers for help.

EFF and Sunlight Foundation published an open call for help testing a tool and populating an open data format that would make it easier for everyday people to contact members of Congress. We already had a prototype, but we needed volunteers to conduct tests on each and every Congressional website.

We expected the project would take about two weeks to complete, but feared it might take a month or longer. We worried that web developers wouldn’t want to spend hours working on a boring, frustrating, often technically complex task.

Instead, volunteers conquered the project in two days.

Within hours of publishing our blog post, we were flooded by offers of support. People from all over the world contacted us, and many immediately jumped in and started contributing. By 2:30 AM the day we launched, 70 people were already hacking on the project and had submitted over 420 commits.

The following morning, we found even more people had gotten involved.  More than a hundred people were helping us write the code after hearing about our project on Hacker News, reddit, and BoingBoing.

Today, we’re declaring victory. Thanks to the hard work of over a hundred volunteers around the globe, we’re incredibly proud to announce the first-ever public domain database for submitting emails to members of Congress.

142 authors helped us build the code. There were over 1,600 commits to the Github repo in the last few days. And we now have pathways for contacting 530 members of Congress1

We did it. We just made democracy a little more functional.

Why Everyone Should Be Able to Contact Congress

We wanted to build a tool for contacting congress so that we could ensure that the voices of Internet users would be heard in the halls of Congress. We wanted to feel confident that messages were being delivered when EFF supporters spoke out against bills like SOPA or demanded reform to NSA spying or software patents. We wanted a system that reflected our values—public domain, as secure as possible, and built with free software.

But we didn’t just want to build something for EFF. We wanted to create an open dataset that anybody could use to create similar tools. We wanted to fundamentally make elected officials more accountable to the people by lowering the bar to sending messages to Congress. We hope developers will use the dataset we’ve made for other projects, establishing new ways of interacting with Congress that we might not even have considered.

Today, that dataset exists.

Why People Got Involved

There were a lot of volunteers who worked long hours to finish this tool. Here are some thoughts they shared:

Darrik Mazey, who contributed over 59 commits to the project, said:

"I got involved with this project simply because when you get the opportunity to help an organization that has done so much for digital privacy rights, you don't pass it up. It felt like a chance to do something real to support a cause I strongly believe in, and facilitating communication between the public and their representatives is absolutely necessary for any sort of social improvement."

“It is crucial to support projects to help restore the voice of the public, especially at this moment in history of overwhelming influence of corporate, economic and political elites,” said Moiz Syed, who made 67 commits to the Github repo over the course of two days. "Being a part of this huge collaborative effort, working with people staying up till all hours of the night helping each other, was both an exhilarating and empowering experience."

Lucas Myer, who made 57 commit to the Github repo, said: “The community effort to help with Contact Congress was nothing short of amazing.  I think, like me, a lot of developers see the vital role the EFF serves in defending digital rights and civil liberties. Contributing to Contact Congress was a great opportunity to give something back to the EFF while helping build tools to help people more easily contact their representatives.”

Everyone who made over 55 commits to Github will be recognized on the EFF website under a new page we’re creating for volunteer technologists.

Let’s Do This Again Sometime!

We were completely floored by the outpouring of support we got from developers. In less than two days, we accomplished an enormous project that will benefit EFF and democracy. In fact, the experience has us brainstorming about other volunteer projects that could have a dramatic impact on our digital rights.

Here’s an obvious one: every two years, there’s an election that will necessitate us cleaning up our Contact Congress code. If you want to be on an email list that gets contacted to help out with that and other web development projects, just send an email rainey@eff.org and let us know to add you to the mailing list. Whenever we have a challenging project that needs tech volunteers, we’ll let you know.

But there are other ways you can stay involved. If you want to help us build a more secure Web, please help us maintain our free browser add-on, HTTPS Everywhere. Take a look.

And if you’re interested in building cool action campaigns that benefit the freedom online, consider joining the volunteer team at Taskforce.is. EFF has been teaming up with them for the last several months on technology and advocacy projects, and they could use the help of dedicated, skilled, and passionate developers.

And finally, if you really love working on these projects, you should know that EFF is hiring—we’re looking for a web developer with lovely, edgy front-end design skills and a passion for digital rights. Join us.

Big thanks

A ton of people contributed to this project, more than we can name in this blog post. But we want to extend a special thanks to:

  • Dan Drinkard, Eric Mill, and the rest of the team at the Sunlight Foundation. They labored on this project for months and months, and created both the original code and bookmarklet for this project.
  • Thomas Davis, the sleepless hacker in Australia who single-handedly managed dozens of volunteers through the nights while the US crew slept.
  • Moiz Syed, Darrick Mazey, Lucas Myers, Corey Garnett, Aaron Griffith, Steve Crozier, and everyone else who worked late into the night to pull this project together.
  • Jason Rosenbaum and the rest of the Action Network team, who dove in and helped both test our tools and manage volunteers.
  • David Moore at the Participatory Politics Foundation, whose original project was the inspiration for this project.
  • Bill Budington, our staff technologist, who single-handedly wrote our congress-forms tool and without whom none of this would have happened.

And of course, our deepest thanks go to Sina Khanifar, leader of exhausted web developers everywhere and the organizer of this effort.  If you have a minute, tweet your thanks to Sina: @sinak.

Thanks, everybody. See you next time!

  • 1. The last few members of Congress have buggy forms, and EFF’s staff technologists will be hacking a solution to those in the coming days.

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