Why the White House is open-sourcing its chatbot code

In August, the White House released a chatbot that allows citizens to contact the President, who reads ten letters and messages each night. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., publisher and chief executive officer of the Washington Post, introduces first lady Michelle Obama at an event celebrating 20th Century Art in the White House, on Friday in Washington. The Obamas welcomed art students to a workshop with members of the White House Historical Associations, the Committee for Preservation of the White House, and the White House Curatorial staff.

In August, President Obama responded to a citizen-sourced message on Facebook for the first time via a chatbot. On Friday, the White House announced that the code for that first-ever government bot for Facebook Messenger would become available to all digital developers.

American presidents have received and responded to letters from citizens for centuries, and the Obama administration has taken that communication to the next level, constructing the chatbot in an effort to make the White House ever more open and available to citizens. White House personnel say that open-sourcing the code for the bot is just one more way to make government transparent.

“That’s why, today, we’re open-sourcing this White House technology, with the hope that other governments and developers can build similar services – and foster similar connections with their citizens – with significantly less upfront investment,” wrote Jason Goldman, the White House chief digital officer, in a blog post on Friday.

Mr. Obama has long sought to present himself as an open, accessible, and honest leader. Since 2009, the president has read 10 letters from citizens every day. The practice continues, although since August, some of those missives could be Facebook chat messages.

According to Mr. Goldman, the White House chatbot is "an important part of furthering our mission to 'meet the public where they are.' Millions of people contact their friends and family using Facebook Messenger. Why shouldn’t they be able to contact the White House, too?”

The White House’s decision to open-source the code for the revolutionary bot comes at a time when government is beginning to embrace new tools to reach out to citizens and potential voters.

This week, the Clinton campaign unveiled two new bots – a voter registration bot and a Donald Trump insult bot.

The campaign’s voter registration chatbot, developed by the Hillary for America tech team, can answer user questions about voting and confirm whether or not a citizen is registered to vote.

Infinitely more entertaining is the Donald Trump bot, which draws on a database of Trump quotes to text users insults said by the Republican presidential nominee.

The Clinton campaign hopes that these bots will help appeal to younger voters who are likely to use Facebook and other digital platforms for communication.

The White House’s code should be easy to use, according to the blog post. The Drupal module open-sourced by the White House and available on the White House’s GitHub contains simple, “boiler-plate code” and easy steps for developers.

Users should be able to quickly and easily create their own Facebook chatbot, Goldman says. The White House also hopes that other government agencies will develop their own bots to help direct interactions with citizens.

“Now, there is one less barrier to being more accessible and responsive to constituents,” Goldman says. “We look forward to seeing what others build on top of this work.”

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