Examining the American Public Through “We the People”

If the titles of petitions submitted to President Obama on the “We the People” website are any indication, Americans care deeply about current political issues and want the government to grant them a broader range of rights and services, although stopping current actions is another common theme.


We the People,” a portion of the White House web presence launched in 2011 allows citizens to draft petitions for the President and garner electronic “signatures” to support their chosen issue. Petition topics range from amusing to serious. The platform hosts petitions to “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016” and to “Deport Justin Bieber and Revoke his green card” as well as petitions to “File charges against the 47 U.S. Senators in violation of The Logan Act in attempting to undermine a nuclear agreement.” DASIL’s data explorer allows searches of these petitions based on keyword, subject category, or number of signatures.

Since 2011, 4,615 petitions with over 150 signatures in 30 days, the threshold for being included on the site, have been archived. Petitions with 100,000+ signatures merit a White House response. The original threshold was 5,000, but this was quickly raised to 25,000 in 2011 and then to 100,000 in 2013.  “We the People” has archived 247 petitions with over 25,000 signatures, amounting to about one a week crossing the 25,000 signature threshold since 2011! Thus while increasing the threshold for an official response has significantly reduced the need for the responses, there are still a significant number of petitions that require attention.


The word cloud above reveals an interesting characteristic of the most popular “We the People” petitions. While frivolous issues do appear on the forum, the most supported and reoccurring issues are serious: governance, health, security, and services, rather than less wide-reaching political concerns.


Glancing through the White House responses to petitions, it is clear that Americans place perhaps too much faith in their government’s ability to fulfill their requests.  The federal government does not keep a formal list of “hate groups” and therefore cannot declare that Westboro Baptist is one, even though the petition to do so has the most signatures of all “We the People” petitions. Neither can they deport Justin Bieber.

However, petition responses also make confirm that petitions do serve a purpose. Recent responses contain information from the FDA about GMOs, details on the Iran nuclear deal, and a detailed explanation of the debate on body cameras for law enforcement.  These responses indicate when the government is already working to pursue its citizens’ interests, and, occasionally, report that the issue has been forwarded to the appropriate department for consideration. Therefore, though petitions occasionally overestimate the government’s scope of action, petition responses grant concerned citizens access to clear information about their greatest concerns.

Investigating the Spatial & Temporal Trends of Declaring a Major

The start of the school year is a time many students start putting thought into what disciplines to study for the remainder of their collegiate careers. Many on-campus resources such as the Center for Careers, Life, and Service are already in the full swing of advising students, such as the “Choosing Your Major” info session on Sept 21st from noon to 1 in the Joe Rosenfield Center. Here in DASIL, we thought it would be fun to investigate what Grinnell College students majored in over the years to illustrate the transformation of student academic patterns. Using data from the Office of Academic Affairs, Office of the Registrar, and the Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research, we created two interactive graphics. One is a line graph presenting the number of declared majors over time from 1991 to 2015 by major and rank compared to other majors. Our second visualization is a geographic map with two layers: the US layer breaks down the proportion of students by state and major from 1985 to 2015, while the world layer illustrates the proportion of international students by country and major.

Click on the Details button below to find out more about the data for each visualization.

For the map:

    • The Contents button(contentsbutton) will display all layers. Unclick the checkbox next to the layer name to hide the layer. To view the legend, click on the “Show Legend” icon (contentsbutton) below the layer name.
    • To examine other majors, find the “Change Style” button (contentsbutton) below the layer name you wish to view, then select the desired major from the “Choose an attribute to show” drop-down menu.  You may alter the map with colors, symbols or size.
    • Click on an individual country or US state to see available data on all majors.

For the line graph:

  • Choose your major(s) of interest in the “Select a major to display” field.
  • Hover over each point to display information on a major’s rank by class year and the number of students declared. Hover over a line to view the path of a major over time.



The Biology major holds the record for most students declared within this time frame, at 53 students for the Class of 1995. Since its creation, the number of students who major in Biological Chemistry increased leaps and bounds, ranking as the second most-declared major in the Class of 2015, tied with Psychology. Economics shows a general increasing trend over time, while majors like English and Sociology show erratic variability throughout.

American Studies majors appears to be representing the South and Southwest regions of the US, while Sociology is prominent in states located in the Midwest and, similarly, the South. A large proportion of students hailing from California study the hard sciences, especially Biological Chemistry. Surprisingly, there is a significant proportion of biology majors represented in most of the states.

Scoping out, the social sciences and hard sciences are popular disciplines among international students. Economics, Biological Chemistry, and Math are popular, especially in countries like China and India. Several humanities majors are not well-represented by international students, such as Theatre and Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies.