Guest blogger John Graham-Cumming initiated and led the successful petition drive to procure an apology to Alan Turing from the UK government. John is the author of The Geek Atlas, CTO of a stealth-mode start-up, and a longtime programmer who has a doctorate in computer security. If you're in London this Saturday, September 19, come by the launch party for his book at the Brunel Museum.
There's a long tradition in the UK of direct democracy, with citizens
petitioning the Prime Minister themselves. Typically, thousands of
signatures are collected on paper and then delivered directly to the
Prime Minister's home at No. 10
Downing Street in London. The petitioners arrive at No. 10 and
hand the signatures through the open front door.
But the British government has made great strides to bring many
aspects of government relations into the electronic age. Through the
non-profit MySociety.org the
government has created web sites (all with open-source code) for
citizens to interact with local and central government offices.
One such web site is the No. 10 Downing Street href="http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/">petitions page (its code
is open-source and can be found href="https://secure.mysociety.org/cvstrac/dir?d=mysociety/pet">here).
I used the petitions web site, a collection of Web 2.0 technologies,
and a bit of media savvy to successfully petition the government to
apologize for the prosecution of the seminal computer scientist href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing">Alan Turing.
And I did most of it from the top of a red London double-decker bus
using an iPhone.
Alan Turing did three amazing things in his working life: he laid the
foundations of computer science by thinking up a theoretical computer
called the Turing
Machine, he worked through the Second World War breaking Nazi
German codes, and after the war he worked on artificial intelligence
and defined the href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test">Turing Test. His
life was cut short at 41 when he had begun to work on href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morphogenesis">morphogenesis in
Alan Turing was also gay and he was prosecuted for "gross indecency" (essentially being gay) in 1952. To avoid prison he agreed to be injected with female hormones as a sort of 'cure' for homosexuality. Two years after his prosecution he was dead: he killed himself by eating an apple dipped in potassium cyanide.
June 23, 2009 was the anniversary of Alan Turing's birth (he would
have been 97) and I posted a blog entry entitled href="http://www.jgc.org/blog/2009/06/alan-turing-deserves-apology-from.html">Alan
Turing deserves an apology from the British Government. It
generated a few comments and I posted a follow-up entry the next day
with an example of href="http://www.jgc.org/blog/2009/06/turing-test-and-prejudice.html">how
I would apologize for my government's actions in 1952.
On August 4, 2009 the petition was approved and made public. I
mentioned it on my blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, and href="http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=739135">posted it to Y
Combinator's Hacker News. At the time I thought I'd have a hard time
getting 500 people to sign. Little did I know the petition would
gather over 30,000 signatures in 37 days and elicit an incredible
apology from the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown preceded by a
personal call to my mobile phone.
This chart shows the number of signatures per day between August 4,
2009 and September 10, 2009. (click for larger view)
The same day the story appeared on Reddit. Signatures started to come in slowly.
The next day the petition was picked up by the first journalist to write about it: Jessica Geen of Pink News wrote an online only story which made the story jump over from being covered just by computer scientists and into the LGBT community. The LGBT press would turn out to be a strong ally reporting on the growing petition throughout the campaign.
Four days later, on August 9, 2009 the petition passed 500 signatures. This was the magic level needed to get a government response. I was still pretty skeptical of getting an apology but I certainly wasn't going to be satisfied by 500 names and kept promoting it on Twitter, my blog, and elsewhere.
The first really big break came on August 16, 2009 when the Manchester Evening News wrote about the petition. Manchester was where Alan Turing died and where he had worked before his death. There's a great deal of local pride in Manchester's adopted local boy Alan Turing. The following night I was a guest on BBC Radio Manchester's gay hour.
With one celebrity name and national press I began to think the petition might really get noticed. The following night Richard Dawkins and I appeared on Channel 4 News to talk about the petition (Dawkins was filmed looking regal in his garden; I was filmed in classic programmer clothing: bad shoes, dirty shorts and a crumpled shirt). The same day I appeared on the BBC World Service and PRI's The World.
Sitting on the bus each morning I would catch up on email regarding the petition and scan the list of signatures looking for celebrities who I would then try to contact through their agents. I also plotted how to get the story in the press. Anyone who wrote about the story got added to my Turing/Media email list and each morning I would prepare an update on the story with the number of signatures, who had signed and any other events, and send it out.
Over the next week many things happened: I appeared on BBC Radio Ulster, I wrote a letter to Her Majesty The Queen asking her to consider a posthumous knighthood for Alan Turing, the veteran human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell signed the petition and I received an email from the writer Ian McEwan to say that he had signed.
I knew it was time to get the story out as widely as possible and so I emailed two BBC journalists that I knew to say that I thought the petition was an important story and that they needed to cover it.
Do you think you'd be interested in covering the Alan Turing Petition? It's now got backing from Richard Dawkins and has been covered by BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Northern Ireland, The World Service, Channel 4 News, The Independent, ...
for good background.
There are now 4,800 signatories.
On August 31, 2009 BBC News online covered the story with a long article about the petition, and its celebrity backers. The night before I had gone to bed feeling happy that there were 5,000 signatures on my petition; I woke up to 16,000, by the next morning there were 20,000. That day I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland.
The single enormous leap in signatures in the chart above happened because of the BBC News online story.
The same day I received two extraordinary emails. Unbeknownst to anyone I had written to MI5 asking them to release documents about Alan Turing's death in an effort to clear up any doubt about whether his death could have been murder. They denied my request.
The second email came from a member of Alan Turing's surviving family. The BBC report had erroneously said that he had no family. But that was incorrect: Turing's three nieces remembered him well, and he had a surviving nephew.
On the bus home I heard directly that Alan Turing's nieces had many memories of their Uncle Alan. They even still had his teddy bear. I hung up and sat at the back of the bus and cried quietly. I had always felt that Alan Turing's treatment was appalling, but to hear the family speak of the man was too much. I was convinced that I had to see my campaign, which had started on an impulse, to its completion.
Two days later I raced up to Bletchley Park to film the definitive report on the campaign with BBC Newsnight's science editor Susan Watts. The report ran that night and the same day international coverage of the campaign exploded with stories in the major press all over the world. The Newsnight story featured an interview with Alan Turing's nieces and nephew describing the terrible treatment he had endured and giving their blessing to the petition.
On September 7, 2009 I did a final piece of radio, appearing on BBC Radio Ulster. The same day I began to feel unwell with what would turn out to be a nasty bout of flu.
Lying in bed on September 10, 2009 I had to check my email because of a work commitment the following day. In my Inbox was the following email:
John - I wonder if you could call me as a matter of urgency, regarding your petition. Very many thanks!
10 Downing St, SW1A 2AA
Tel: 020x xxxx xxxx
Of course, I called back! I was told that the apology was coming that night and that "Gordon would like a word with you". At 19:44 that evening my mobile phone rang and I was handed the Prime Minister.
"Hello John. It's Gordon Brown. I think you know why I'm calling you."
Update The nice folks at No. 10 Downing Street and the petitions team released a spreadsheet of the actual day-by-day signatures for the petition period that gives an even clearer picture of the effect of different news outlets (the chart above came from my hand written, sporadic notes). (click for larger view)