Webcasting offers window into government

More municipalities use the technology to put public meetings and training videos online

As the 2006 election campaign season proved, the public turns to the Web for unfiltered government information, especially for candid video footage of federal officials. Local governments are now attempting to establish credibility with citizens and employees by creating online public records in video form.

Municipalities are Webcasting public meetings, firefighter training videos and other governmental communications. The idea is to offer a live window into government operations — and easy-to-use documentation for future reference.

Some people are suspicious of government entities, and the longer they take to answer questions, the more suspicious people grow, said Frank Clifton, county manager for Onslow County, N.C. The county began Webcasting public meetings live in August, and it also archives them online.

Now when someone is concerned about something the county government discussed or voted on, “I can go in and pull up that meeting and let them see it for themselves,” Clifton said.

He chose to outsource hosting and archival operations to Granicus, a streaming media service provider. Since 1999, Granicus has been catering specifically to local governments. Those governments often do not have enough bandwidth to meet multiple requests from developers, lawyers, the media and agency employees.

Webcasting “creates a public record for us. The written minutes are there alongside of the video” in a word processing document, Clifton said. “It facilitates records management and responding to requests for information. We just refer lawyers to the Internet.”

To generate and manage the Webcasts in-house, Onslow County would have needed to develop complex synchronization software and distribute video files to Web users.  That would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Clifton said the costs would have outweighed the benefits, whereas the cost of Granicus’ quick and easy service was justifiable. The upfront fee was about $26,000. The monthly fee for the service is $1,100.

With the software platform, Clifton can transmit a video, tape, CD or DVD one time to a secure facility at a Granicus site in San Francisco.

Granicus’ San Francisco site distributes and stores the content to reduce the strain on Onslow County’s bandwidth. No user traffic flows over the local government’s Internet connection. This is all invisible to users, who get access to the content directly from the Onslow County Web site.

In Long Beach, Calif., just a handful of streaming requests could bring down the city’s entire Internet connectivity, said Long Beach officials, who now use Granicus.

Local governments are also taking advantage of multimedia tools to communicate better internally.

Tom Spengler, Granicus’ chief executive officer, said 15 percent of the company’s work involves streaming videos of training programs and intragovernmental communications internally to private government Web sites. The distribution process works the same way it does to conserve bandwidth for public Web sites.

Berkeley, Calif., has eliminated the need to repeat retirement benefits classes four times a year by posting a single video on the city’s intranet. New city employees can watch whenever they want and immediately download the necessary forms via links on the video’s Web page.

The company also gives customers the option of storing their material on Granicus’ servers longer than the standard 12 months. When Sacramento County, Calif., needed to store sensitive content, it purchased multiple storage vaults and applied security controls to the vaults that contain the sensitive material.

The system can restrict access to only authorized password holders or authorized IP ranges.

“Security is always becoming a bigger and bigger factor in what our customers want to do,” Spengler said.

With Granicus, the files are recorded in Windows Media format and automatically indexed, he said. Government officials and citizens can search the archive by resolution number, date or keyword and go straight to the video segments they want to watch.
Webcasting more affordable for local governmentsOpen government advocates say local government Webcasting has increased because the cost of streaming video has decreased in the past year.

“It’s become a lot more affordable for folks to use Webcasting to see what was said and how people said it, as opposed to just written format,” said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the nonprofit research group Center for Democracy and Technology. He said the video-sharing Web site YouTube has also boosted Webcasting’s appeal.

Schwartz said some cities and counties have devised in-house systems.

“For podcasting, all you need is a good microphone and an MP3 player,” he said.

But government organizations must be wary of security and privacy risks, Schwartz said.

They need to be careful with third-party providers to ensure that the government maintains ownership of all content, he said. Schwartz recommends that officials include language in the contract to dictate what happens to the material if the company dissolves.

Government officials also need to ensure that people can access archived footage after a change in administration, he said.

“Even from Republican committee chair to Republican committee chair, we’ve lost the data when the new chair comes in” on government Web sites, Schwartz said. “What happens when you get a whole new party in charge? Just losing the link to it means it’s inaccessible.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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