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Forging an Open Stream

Local governments stream their meetings over the Internet, and index the video using searchable agendas.


Mark Stencel

Mark Stencel was previously GOVERNING's executive editor and deputy publisher.

Ray Davis is well known as a governmental gadfly in Los Gatos, California. He often takes full advantage of public comment periods at council and commission meetings, appearing at the microphone in his trademark "Citizen Ray" baseball cap -- a "tireless, self-appointed monitor of local government," as one newspaper described him. And now that the Bay Area suburb is streaming its proceedings, the feisty activist may become a Web star, too.

Finding Citizen Ray's numerous rants at various meetings is a snap for anyone with a high-speed Internet connection -- which may not sound like a great leap forward for open government or online democracy. But searching for any other speaker or topic is just as easy because Los Gatos not only streams its meetings but also indexes the video using searchable agendas and minutes.

Across the country, from Sarasota to Sacramento, other local governments and state agencies are making audio and video available, too. In New York, for instance, Governor Eliot Spitzer issued an executive order requiring state agencies to begin webcasting all meetings covered by open-government laws. And the tools for producing video and audio are increasingly affordable to all levels of government.

One leading provider of streaming services is Granicus Inc., a San Francisco company with about 400 customers, mostly municipalities such as Los Gatos. The company signed up 165 new clients in 2007 alone. One of its high-end offerings, which I saw demonstrated at a Public Technology Institute meeting in Denver last year, allows a single record-keeper to create official minutes for a meeting as it's being held, effectively indexing the video as it's produced. That's helpful for clerks and board secretaries, often reducing the workload for meeting management enough to cover the cost of the service -- and spares viewers from having to watch a long stream all the way through just to find one agenda item. There's also a long-term archiving solution.

These video- and audio-indexing offerings are examples of software as a service (or SaaS), an on-demand model for delivering applications to clients in which the vendor hosts and maintains the tools for the customer. The idea is to exchange the cost of software licenses and hardware with monthly fees and consulting services.

So how much does streaming cost? Fees ultimately depend on the size of a community and which services a client chooses. According to Granicus, a full bells-and-whistles installation for Clark County, Nevada -- one of its larger clients with a population of about 2 million -- cost taxpayers a $167,000 one-time payment for setting up the system, plus about $3,500 in monthly fees for ongoing services. At the other end of the spectrum is Chatfield, Minnesota -- population 2,500. Officials there made a $2,941 upfront payment and pay a $750 monthly fee. The video itself typically comes from the feed customers already produce to air on local government TV channels.

Granicus is not the only company in the business. Local and regional webcasters also vie for government contracts. Streams for Houston and several other Texas communities, for example, are provided by a Plano company called Swagit, while EarthChannel in Stone Mountain, Georgia, serves government clients in its area.

Do-it-yourself is another option. In the YouTube era, posting and hosting multimedia files is no longer as complicated or pricey as it once was. But even though handling audio or video streams in-house is not impossible, the actual expenses of producing and hosting quality online video for mass consumption are easily underestimated. And in the case of the fast-changing world of streaming media, the strength-in-numbers that comes from working with an outsourcer that can spread its capabilities and expertise across many clients will continue to be an attractive choice.

The possibility of aggregating all of this video and audio may take open government to a new level. Having collected and indexed streams from more than 100,000 meetings already, Granicus is working on a system that would allow users to search all of its holdings. A local official, citizen or journalist with an interest in green-building requirements or indoor smoking bans, for instance, could easily find and share discussions on those same topics in other communities.

Making it easier to tap the collective wisdom of governments and citizens across the country is a service that even Citizen Ray would probably applaud.

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