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99 problems but annotating ain't one

GSA NewsGenius Annotation

Agency documents can now be annotated and explained by the crowd.

Rap lyricism and governmentese aren't close relatives. Some might argue that they are polar opposites. But the General Services Administration recently approved terms of service with the social media annotation platform Rap Genius -- a site originally dedicated to explaining rap lyrics -- to break down both the jargon and allusions in official government documents, speeches and reports.

A Stanford intellectual property law professor was interested in annotating Salt-N-Pepa lyrics on Rap Genius, then decided to upload and open the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to annotation.

So while Rap Genius was launched to illuminate the often-overlooked significance of certain song lines, its aperture has grown wider and wider to include different types of music, famous poetry, classical literature and now government-speak.

Federal documents like GSA Mentor-Protégé Program will most often be found on sister site News Genius. Readers are able to click different highlighted terms for context and read general questions and answers about the document in a sidebar.

Rap Genius marries the main concepts of Wikipedia and Sparknotes in that anybody can contribute to annotations, although the site is monitored for accuracy, and it breaks down dense language into more-comprehensible prose, whether it is Shakespeare's Hamlet or Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's latest economic report.

"I think this is a great way for us to really start engaging and telling people what our programs actually do, how to find everything in one place," Stephanie Rivera, chief of staff for GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, said at a recent #SocialGov summit.

IIan Zechory, founder of Rap Genius, said the site can increase citizen accessibility to government resources.

Zechory said that the service is not just a tool for government employees, but also for citizens to better understand policy so they can scrutinize it.

"It's not just so that experts within the government agencies can elucidate and make more clear what's going on," he said. "It's also … that people who are confused can say, 'hey this makes no sense.'"

About the Author

Reid Davenport is a former FCW editorial fellow. Connect with him on Twitter: @ReidDavenport.

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