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This Week in Civic Tech: Social Users to Hunt for Banned Books, Sunlight Foundation Plans Open Data Census Revamp

A look at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Twitter and Instagram Users Hunt for Banned Books

How do you make what’s invisible visible? The District of Columbia Public Library system has found a solution to the perplexing question by way of a citywide scavenger hunt, conducted in celebration of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, held Sept. 25 to Oct. 1.

Possibly inspired by the recent buzz around the new mobile app Pokemon Go, the D.C. Public Library Foundation is attempting a similar kind of feat, only with actual copies of banned books in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of these literary Easter eggs have been nestled in secure areas of the Metro, alcoves of city facilities, in local businesses and at D.C. libraries. Once found, residents snap a photo of each with their smartphone and post it on Instagram or Twitter under the hashtag #UNCENSOREDDC.

Adding to the experience, the books are covered with custom jackets that are jet black and conceal the original book covers, instead using new titles based on the reasons libraries and communities banned them in the first place.

“Anti-White” reads one, “Filthy Trashy Sex Novel” another, and yet another just the word “SMUT” in all white caps. A few lucky scavengers will be awarded tickets to attend a special cocktail party and fundraiser hosted by the D.C. Public Library Foundation.

In a post on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Linnea Hegarty, executive director of the D.C. Public Library Foundation, said the intent is to remind citizens of their rights to information and free expression.

“D.C. is a funny audience for banned books week,” Hegarty said. “There’s not a lot of that activity around banning books in the city, but it’s still important for people to understand it can and does happen.”

Sunlight Hatches Plans to Revamp the OpenData Census

When it was first released, and in the recent years since, the U.S. City Open Data Census made waves in its first attempt to measure and monitor municipal open data progress. Just last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti referenced the census (in which L.A. ranked at the top) as a key performance metric of the the city’s open data work. Similarly, in March of this year, open data consultant Sarah Schacht, a driver of the work to put food inspection scores on Yelp, wrote of the platform’s capacity as an incentivizer of transparency and open data benchmarking.

But even with this and other publicity, the census appears to have hit hard times, and is in need of a rebuild from the bottom up. This was the word from the Sunlight Foundation, which manages the site, as it wrote about its ideas to improve the ailing census stats. The transparency organization said that many of its Web pages are out of date, and submissions from cities reporting open data updates have waned.

In response to this, Sunlight set for itself three primary goals to revitalize the census and expand its impacts. They described them as follows:

1. Updating the site: We wanted to clear any past backlogs and fully update the census site, with a straightforward process for running it in 2016 and beyond.
2. Increasing visibility: We aimed to better connect the census with its original mission: raising awareness for open data and encouraging cities to learn from their peers in creating strong, effective open data programs that not only promote efficiency but accountability as well. As a result, we’ve sought to increase attention for the census from the public and the media, from city officials and even from promoters of open data like Sunlight itself.
3. Integrating with other Sunlight work: We hoped to better integrate the census with the Sunlight Foundation’s other work — in analyzing and advising on open data policy and practice, in aiding our partners in the What Works Cities program, and in supporting transparency on issues ranging from lobbying to crime.

To achieve these goals, Sunlight has invested in a number of resources. There are what they call “open data librarians,” who are tasked with reviewing submissions; and they’ve fixed part of the code that was first created in 2014, rewrote the “About” and Frequently Asked Questions pages with clearer language, and added more granular descriptions of each data set category.

“When the census launched, our friends at Code for America [who helped to create the platform] called it, 'a foundational step for ensuring data can go ‘beyond transparency’ to be truly actionable.'" Sunlight said. "Two years later, the census is no less important as a step toward ensuring truly open and accessible city data."

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.