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Streaming City Hall to Smartphones




Over the past decade, Denver-based Open Media Foundation has made viewing public meetings increasingly easier for Colorado citizens. Now, the nonprofit is expanding that mission nation-wide with its Open Media Project software.
The Colorado General Assembly wrapped up its 2016 regular session on May 10 with a long day of proceedings. The House of Representatives, for example, convened for 11 hours. “You wouldn’t want to sit through that entire session,” says Tony Shawcross, founder and executive director of the Open Media Foundation.

Prior to 2008, however, that’s exactly what voters had to do to be informed citizens. Those who didn’t want to watch floor proceedings in real time could check out recorded audio files from the archivist’s office in the Colorado State Capital Building.

But then the nonprofit Open Media Foundation changed the way Coloradans could access the workings of their state legislature, teaming up with a local tech company and the state government to create The Colorado Channel, and to make proceedings viewable through television and the web. In the years since, it has honed its delivery system to make public meetings of various kinds even easier to view — and now it is taking its mission nation-wide.

Open Media's Tony Shawcross giving a presentation in San Francisco.

That mission, Shawcross explains, is to help voters in small communities have a bigger voice in shaping public policy by keeping them informed about what government officals say and do. “Data shows that civic engagement and trust in government is at an all-time low,” says Shawcross, pointing to studies from Pew Research Center.

“Our big-picture goal is lowering the bar for what it takes to be engaged.”

Customizing government information

When it launched in 2008, The Colorado Channel made government proceedings more accessible than they’d ever been before. But there was still a barrier to getting people to use the information: The videos tended to be lengthy and long-winded and citizens had to sit through hours of material to find the subjects that interested them.

So, in 2013, Open Media Foundation built its own streaming and archiving service for the Colorado State Legislature, making its video searchable and shareable. That new service attracted more than twice the number of users of any previous year while cutting operating costs in half by tapping into free tools such as YouTube.

The software was so successful that, a year later, Open Media Foundation built and beta-tested a version of the tool with ten state and local governments across Colorado. Residents in participating municipalities could follow local government happenings online, instead of being physically present at town hall meetings.

The software makes recordings of proceedings and meetings searchable in two ways. Governments that use the program are able to time-stamp their agendas. “We also transcribe every word that is spoken and expose [the text] to search,” Shawcross adds. The result is a program that allows viewers to find the topics that interest them most, quickly jumping to pertinent segments of archived video and text.

The City of Thornton was the first municipal government to implement Open Media Foundation’s technology. “There were a lot of really important reasons we wanted to do it,” says city communications director Todd Barnes.

Thornton was already taping meetings, but the system was expensive and inefficient.  The Open Media Foundation’s software “had all of the functionality we needed to continue to do our live meetings and provide good playback,” continues Barnes. “And Open Media Foundation is committed to developing a platform that is really accessible,” he adds, pointing to a jump-to point feature that lets users click on a subject and jump to pertinent video clips. “I think our city staff even uses it,” says Barnes.

As far as he is concerned, “Government should do everything we can to make the decision making process accessible. Some communities are concerned people are going to grandstand once you start video. But you’ve got keep your eye on the prize, and the prize is being transparent.”

(Shawcross, by the way, has spoken to a few communities where the governments aren’t interested in streaming their proceedings. “We’re looking at ways community members could use this, even without the government making it happen,” Shawcross says.)

Open Media Moves Beyond Colorado

Last year, the Open Media Foundation had an opportunity to take its mission outside Colorado when it was invited to participate in the Fast Forward Accelerator, a training program for nonprofits, which provided the extra resources needed to develop the Open Media Project, a version of Open Media Foundation’s original transparency software that could be used by governments nationwide.

OMP – available at ompnetwork.org – is free of charge for governments serving populations of 5,000 or fewer; and governments serving larger populations pay 50 to 90 percent less than comparable for-profit solutions. Similar to Open Media Foundation’s Colorado-focused software, OMP makes it easy for governments to open up their meetings to constituents digitally. “It’s designed to be very simple to setup,” Shawcross says.

A screenshot of Open Media's meetings portal.

Neil Moyer – Program Manager for the Lane Council of Governments – agrees that the OMP was easy to implement. His organization provides services to governments in Oregon, including Lane County and the city of Eugene, which were the first government outside of Colorado to go live with OMP last year.

Lane County and Eugene had been offering webcasting to constituents for 15-plus years. “It was pretty slick,” Moyer says. But the system was based in Microsoft.    

“You couldn’t watch [recordings] live unless you had Explorer, and you had to watch replay on a Windows screen,” explains Moyer. Not to mention the system didn’t interface with many modern devices.

“The City of Eugene was using Lane County’s system. They were both looking for a new solution, and I was really hoping they’d choose the same solution since we’re the ones running it for both,” says Moyer, noting, “We provide a cable channel, too, but people today are mostly looking for an online option.”

Moyer stumbled on OMP by chance at a national conference. Right away he says, “It really seemed to be one of the best options.” YouTube integration made archiving convenient, and the software was inexpensive, which was a huge factor for both governments.

Eugene and Lane County governments started using the program last summer. “We ran our old system and this new tool parallel for about a year,” Moyer says. He isn’t sure about viewership yet – “We’ll be paying more attention to analytics this year,” he says – but notes that both governments have been pleased with the program.

Visit either government’s website – eugene-or.gov or lanecounty.org – and click to “webcasts,” where a search bar under “Upcoming & Archived Sessions” allows users to enter a topic of interest and immediately retrieve video clips from all meetings where that topic has been mentioned.

The Open Media crew: Showing Colorado, and now the U.S., how government works.

Moyer is partial to OMP’s share feature, which enables users to set in-and-out points for portions of video they want to share, then blast the clip to their social media networks. Residents in Eugene, Moyer notes, recently used the feature to get civilians engaged on some public safety stuff happening downtown. Open Media Foundation is preparing to roll out topical email/text notification later this year. “That’s huge because some people might not want to go to a site to search a video,” says Shawcross.

“Local government is where the public has the greatest opportunity to make an impact, and it’s also where decisions are made that most impact their lives,” says Shawcross. “With OMP, government can finally be accessible to the public in the way they want to consume information.” To find out more, visit ompnetwork.org.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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