The city of Grapevine, Texas, live streams its meetings.
Citizens in the U.S. demand transparency from publicly funded agencies, insisting on easy access to the proceedings in legislative sessions and other policy-making meetings even when meetings can’t be easily attended in person. In response, some state and local government agencies are turning to streaming video technology and services as a way for constituents to gain firsthand knowledge of how their tax dollars are being spent.
Government-access television has been part of America’s democratic landscape for decades, with live broadcasts and recorded programming commonly available through cable television and an handful of traditional broadcast stations. However, this arrangement meant that satellite service subscribers were left out in the cold, and most viewers with only over-the-air reception did not have access to public meeting coverage.
These days, Internet connectivity is available to the vast majority of homes and businesses, and city councils and other government bodies are able to use streaming video technology to reach constituents on computers, smartphones and tablets.
Until recently, streaming and storing videos of government proceedings has been fairly expensive, with some government entities paying as much as $8,000 simply to have a local production company broadcast a single live council meeting. Also, the process of posting event recordings online was usually too time-consuming for existing staff, which meant hiring in-house production staff with the attendant expense.
Often this was not enough to get the desired result. For example, the city of Austin, Texas, used to have two part-time employees and a full-time lead person post videos of city meetings online, but due to those staffers’ other responsibilities, it still took two to four days for a single meeting to be available online.
Additionally, government bodies that were streaming video mostly used older streaming technologies that did not address multiple streaming video formats or whether all web browsers played their video. In fact, many government groups don’t accommodate mobile device usage without intervention from external service providers.
Robert Heath (left) and Abel Villarreal of ATXN directing a meeting for the city of Austin, Texas.
Technology has advanced to the point that a mixture of onsite streaming media encoders, management software and offsite support personnel make it possible to automatically record meetings and events, then stream the content to constituents live and on-demand. The live broadcasting and recording apparatus typically consists of one or more robotic tilt/pan/zoom video cameras and a software framework that includes custom-built servers, encoding software and an appropriate video capture card.
Although these tools are sophisticated, they need to be fine-tuned to accommodate the conditions in chambers or meeting rooms, as well as viewers’ needs. For example, the cameras’ audio levels and image quality should be calibrated prior to a broadcast.
Once the quality is satisfactory, the software framework is deployed. Video capture cards typically impair the flexibility of live video delivery by forcing the use of the same frame size, frame rate, bitmap overlays and other critical parameters for each stream.
However, there are now video capture cards that offer driver enhancements enabling a single card to deliver full-frame video to high-speed Internet users; smaller, lower-rate video to DSL and dial-up subscribers; and optimized video for several different mobile device standards. One such card is the Osprey 825e by Variosystems. The system detects what kind of Internet connection a person is using and adjusts the picture quality accordingly. High-performance video capture cards also enable hardware audio gain control, closed-caption extraction and rendering, cropping, and bitmap overlay.
Despite the sophistication of the equipment and process, integrating this framework into an existing system is not a drawn-out task. For example, Keith Reeves, program manager for Austin’s ATXN government access channel reported that when it outsourced its streaming process to Swagit Productions, the transfer did not consume much time or effort for his facility. “It only took an hour to have the streaming up and running,” he said.
The encoder software records the meetings or sessions according to a preset broadcast schedule. The broadcast signal goes through a switch that sends it to production and also to the relevant cable television channel. If there are multiple cameras, offsite personnel operate those cameras remotely from their facility, zooming in and switching from camera to camera during the meetings.
Equipment rack at ATXN
The system at ATXN produces MPEG-2 files, which can be further compressed to Flash, Windows Media, QuickTime, Real and HTML5 streaming formats or direct authored to DVD. At the conclusion of each recording session, the encoder software transfers the recorded audio and video data to a content delivery network via a secure virtual private network connection, making it available for on-demand streaming.
Once audio/video content tagged for indexing reaches the network, remotely located video indexers begin the indexing process. Using published meeting agendas or other directions as a guide; those indexers annotate the content by adding jump-to points with specific item headings. As a result, viewers have the greatest possible flexibility in finding and clicking on the specific content that interests them.
The task automation and offsite support also significantly reduces the time taken to post the footage. For example, ATXN’s production time period went from days to within two hours.
An organization’s audio/video files can be stored securely on its content network indefinitely. However, it’s a good idea to have backup storage elsewhere, since these files are your valuable work product and are worth protecting.
The city or government agency typically puts a button or icon linking to the video library on the side of the relevant website. Lately, municipalities have also opted to send out notification messages to residents when a new meeting recording becomes available in the library. Austin posts its streaming schedule online and on its public access station.
By navigating through the library, users can view a list of meetings chronologically or use the jump-to markers to search for specific points within individual audio/video clips. The MPEG-2 video makes it possible for the video footage to be viewed on any device capable of displaying webcast video, so constituents can stay updated via their computers, smartphones or tablets.
If meeting packets or other related information are available online, indexing staff can reference and link to them directly from the video player through partnerships with document and other content management system developers. Viewers are able to pause the video in order to check the meeting agenda as well as read or download any attached meeting documents corresponding with to the topic of interest.
ATXN control room
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Using automation and offsite services leaves government staffers with more time to focus on producing content and fulfilling the duties they were originally hired to do. As a result, staff costs go down, productions and results rise, and the cost of the bandwidth required for delivering content is offloaded to an external service provider.
Accordingly, government entities often go from having limited programming to presenting residents with a wealth of fresh and new content. For example, the city of Austin used to only stream city council meetings.
“We now record 45 meetings a month as well as numerous other projects,” said Reeves.
Austin reports that cost of the increased broadcasting and production schedule is equivalent to two full-time A/V staffers.
“We can’t say enough about the quality of the streams and lack of issues we’ve had,” Reeves said.
Residents are obviously taking notice—in 2014, the city’s on-demand content received nearly a half-million views.
Bryan R. Halley is the co-founder and director of video technology and affairs for Swagit Productions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.