taking video at government hearing

Low-cost video tools for opening government

A nonprofit is helping state and local governments increase transparency and citizen engagement by letting them set up their own channels for broadcasting and archiving public meetings.

The Open Media Foundation’s Open Media Project (OMP) for Government Self-Service Toolkit, just  out of beta testing, lets governments live-stream public meetings with automated transcriptions that get stored in a searchable library. Users can also upload and timestamp agenda items and parse calendar items, all using OMF’s cloud-based software that is powered by YouTube’s live streaming and transcription services.

By using YouTube and other emerging and free tools, OMP was able to cut costs and increase accessibility. For instance, in 2013, when OMF switched the Colorado Channel, a C-SPAN-like TV station that it set up in 2008 to broadcast legislative sessions, from a commercial provider to its own solution, traffic to the Colorado Channel Authority’s website jumped 140 percent while costs fell by 50 percent.

A closer look at that increase shows that direct traffic was growing slowly -- at a rate of about 5 percent, said Tony Shawcross, OMF’s executive director. “What made the traffic increase 139 percent for the legislative session was almost entirely Facebook referrals,” he said. “It meant that people were taking these excerpts and sharing ‘here’s where they talked about civil unions’ or ‘here’s where they talked about gun laws’ or whatever was interesting to them.”

To use the toolkit, governments need only a camera that can capture audio and video;  the  software is compatible with highest-end video cameras or those built into a cell phone or tablet. When users visit ompnetwork.org, they can click to self-install the software and follow the directions to set up a stand-alone site, or “TV station,” with their logos or embed the software into their webpages.

“Our  software organizes the content by what type of content it is – whether it’s a city council meeting or a planning commission meeting – and lays it out on their website in a way that makes it a lot easier to search through” than it would be to do on YouTube, Shawcross said.

“The storage, hosting and bandwidth are pretty minimal, considering that it’s just a frame that’s holding all of the data … and that all of the video content, which is the real bandwidth hog and the storage hog, is all embedded from YouTube,” he added.

Toolkit users can also opt to use other storage tools, such as Archive.org, or they can store local copies.

Colorado-based OMF started with a Denver public access TV station in 2006 and is now being  used in Eugene and Lane County, Ore. At Fast Forward’s Accelerate Good conference March 2 and 3, OMF announced that the toolkit is ready for use nationwide. Fast Forward is an accelerator that focuses on nonprofit technology organizations and helped OMF scale the toolkit.

“The smallest governments really aren’t being served by any of the commercial providers, and we saw that as a huge gap in the market,” Shawcross said. “As a nonprofit, we want to help all governments get online and modernize and reach voters and their constituents where they are.”

OMP originally used a commercial provider of streaming and online transparency tools, but it later built its own software, which worked with any streaming service or content delivery network.

We had ideas about what we could do better or different than “the commercial service, and so we partnered with the state legislature in 2013 to build a non-commercial, nonprofit version of the streaming and archiving software that would leverage a lot of the emerging tools, like YouTube’s live-streaming,” Shawcross said.

In 2014, OMF developed  an even less expensive version of its software and launched it for municipal governments such as Louisville, Colo.’s Planning Commission and the Colorado Supreme Court. That solution became the toolkit, which leverages YouTube.

For governments serving 50,000 or more constituents, the toolkit costs $6,000 per year, including storage and hosting, although the foundation offers a 50 percent discount. It’s free to governments representing 5,000 or fewer constituents.

By the end of the year, OMF officials hope that at least 100 governments will have implemented the software, said Jessica George, OMF’s development director.

“We think that this will become a natural part of what it means to be doing good government,” Shawcross said. “Ten or 15 years ago, a lot of governments didn’t have websites or online services, and now you just can’t do good government without having an online presence,” he said. “There’s no excuse anymore. The technology is there.”

OMF will demonstrate its solution at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas on April 24.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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