Users of the petition website Change.org overwhelmed Madison’s email system Tuesday, causing the city to find a new approach to dealing with a high volume of emails.
Beginning Thursday, the city received an influx of emails from the site related to a petition that called for the Madison Police Department to remove Officer Stephen Heimsness from patrol.
According to Rich Beadles, spokesperson for the city’s information technology department, the petition site allowed signers to share the petition with all of their contacts automatically. This meant one signer could share the petition with 100 of their contacts, who would then share the petition with 100 of their own contacts, exponentially increasing the amount of emails sent to the city website, he said.
Beadles explained the problem occurred when the server could not keep up with the high volume of emails the city email system received in such a short period of time. The server inspects the mail sent to all city emails, and with so many messages at once, it was unable to do its job, he said.
The result was a traffic jam within the city email system, Beadles said. Any emails the server could not keep up with were put in a waiting cue, he said.
“At one point, there were 170,000 messages waiting to get in the system,” Beadles said. “Any other email traffic coming in from the Internet all goes through the same server, and it would have been behind all these other messages.”
The petition emails kept the system backlogged until Sunday, according to Beadles. While the process is usually instantaneous, the backlogged system led to a delay from the time a message was sent to the time it was received by the appropriate city official, he said.
According to Beadles, the city email system received about half a million emails from the website overall.
Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, said this was not the first time the city email system had experienced these kinds of problems.
Resnick cited a similar incident with the Edgewater Hotel a year and a half ago. Someone wrote an automated script of a petition in support of the hotel, he said. Citizens could put in their email address, and it would automatically send to all the alders on the city council, he explained.
“It generated many emails in a number of minutes and caused quite a bit of web traffic,” Resnick said.
The traffic all the emails caused led the city IT department to block all traffic from Change.org, Beadles said. He explained the IT department contacted the organizers of the petition to set up a Gmail account separate from the city emails for the petition emails to be sent to.
According to Resnick, this incident highlighted the importance of working with the IT department to make sure the city is able to receive a high volume of petitions in the future.
“Hopefully, our overall goal should be to facilitate that even if we are receiving thousands of emails they will still be properly communicated to City Council,” Resnick said.