Streaming video is coming of age, a fact best demonstrated by YouTube, a Web site where 100 million videos are downloaded daily. Local government Web sites, too, are hosting live and on-demand videos of public meetings, employee training and public education programs. “Streaming has matured, and local governments are now able to find a practical application for it,” says Kevin Kryzda, chief information officer for Martin County, Fla. “You have to find something that fits the technology before you go applying technology for technology’s sake. We were able to find a great fit for it.”
Streaming local programming
Like many local governments, Martin County, Fla.’s cable channel, MCTV Channel 20, was created to encourage interaction between residents and government. MCTV began broadcasting on the Web four years ago and now attracts about 1,600 visitors daily to watch on-demand and streaming video.
Originally, county officials considered streaming as a way to reach a wider audience. “A lot of our residents are here seasonally, and they can’t receive this local channel unless they are in this area,” Kryzda says. “Many of [those] residents want to keep up with local business, and streaming content was a way to reach those constituents.”
Kansas City, Mo., also began streaming its local cable channel, KCCG-TV2, online in October 2006 to increase access to special events and regular shows, such as “Talk of the Town,” “City Works,” “Youth Beat,” and “Ask Your Councilmember.” “You used to need a cable subscription to view KCCG-TV2, but now you can go online to view all of our original programming, including features and news articles,” says Elizabeth McKinley, Web editor in the city’s communications office.
When streaming video launched, the Kansas City Web site logged almost 700 streams. Now, the videos hit nearly 3,000 streams per month. “We’re seeing a steady increase as users learn about the service,” McKinley says.
The Port of Long Beach, Calif., an agency managed and operated by the Long Beach Harbor Department, added streaming video to its Web site in 2005, mainly to broadcast its cable TV program, “Pulse of the Port.” Since then, the video page has received close to 1,000 visitors, and with each new segment, that number grows. “The port is becoming more and more important to the community, but many people have not come down here to see what we do,” says Art Wong, the port’s assistant director of communications. “A cable TV show offered the ability to do stories about the waterfront. A lot of people don’t subscribe to cable TV, but many more have Internet access. Posting the show on our Web site lets people watch current and older segments anytime they want.”
Minutes in minutes
As streaming cable content helps cities reach more viewers, the application also helps publicize council meetings quickly. “Sometimes the city would advance an item from a committee to council, and it would get heard and passed out of council before it aired on TV,” says Millie Crossland, Kansas City’s city clerk. “We have a compressed time frame for passing legislation, so I wanted to give information to the public in a quick time so they can be informed.”
Kansas City began linking its council minutes to streaming video of the meetings using software by San Francisco-based Granicus. “I have a performance standard for my clerks that they should have minutes edited, bookmarked and back on the Internet within an hour of the meeting’s completion,” Crossland says. “They usually meet that mark.”
Martin County also has expedited the time that it takes to produce minutes by linking documents to video from each meeting. Council meetings, which occur three out of four Tuesdays a month, can last for hours, and it was taking the staff weeks to get the minutes onto the county’s Web site. Now, the deputy clerk to the board uses software to flag video to agenda items as the meeting progresses. When the video and agenda are online, viewers can choose which segments they want to see. “Since we have had this application, we don’t get behind on our minutes like we used to,” says Mary Vettel, deputy clerk. “In the past, we have had a council meeting during the same week as a school board or capital projects meeting, and we would get backed up. We don’t anymore.”
Because local governments run on tight budgets and answer to taxpayers, they have to be certain that they will get a return on the investment in streaming technology. Cities and counties that have used the technology saved in several areas, including staff salaries and the cost of making copies of taped government meetings.
By moving its free, homegrown streaming video system to one that was built specifically for local governments, Martin County was able to use its internal resources more efficiently. “Our old system was piecemealed together, but now all of our hardware and software is in a package with the components built in,” Kryzda says. “The cost of technical support is built into the package, and where we previously had two full-time staff members and one part-time person working on the streaming video, now those people are freed up to do other work in our office.”
Before Martin County’s meetings were online, many residents would visit the county office to determine what happened at a meeting and often would request an audiotape of it. The costs to produce tapes and pay employees to make copies were high. “[Now,] we just direct people to the Web site and they can view any part of it,” he says. “We can clip a piece out and e-mail it to someone or copy the whole meeting on a CD, and it will all be indexed and searchable.”
Denver also has saved money by streaming its meetings online. “We had so many requests to make a copy of a meeting, but we never really had a public duplication service available,” says Alan DeLollis, station manager for Denver 8 Television. “We had to stop what we were doing and make a copy of a meeting, which was a cumbersome and tedious process. Now, we give people information about how to access the video online, which usually satisfies those needs.”
College Station, Texas, used to contract an outside service to film and produce its meetings, but costs were rising. It changed to in-house production of the council meetings in October. “By producing our meetings in-house, we can afford to broadcast more meetings,” says Becky Nugent, the city’s public communications director. “We now also broadcast planning and zoning meetings.”
In the few months College Station has had streaming video, more than 1,500 people have viewed archived council meetings on the Web, and several planning and zoning meetings have had more than 900 hits. Even a joint meeting with the cemetery committee recently attracted more than 500 hits.
Although many local governments began streaming video to broadcast their current programming or meetings, some are expanding its uses. For instance, Brett Blankner, College Station’s GIS coordinator, has linked streaming video from council meetings to online maps. “We put video from city council meetings on the map, so whenever they talk about [a specific area], we can link to that video clip right from the map,” Blankner says. “You can go to your neighborhood and click to see video of a council member talking about putting a new pool in your area, or improving a traffic situation or adding cameras to stoplights.”
Greensboro, N.C., has been recording videos to accompany its “One City, One Book” program, during which residents read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” “We interviewed people with experiences from the holocaust and people who read the book and got their thoughts and reflections,” says Elaine Tricoli, Greensboro’s communications specialist.
It also is creating shows to illustrate city services. So far, “A Day in the Life of a Greensboro Firefighter” has been one of the most popular streaming video programs, with 1,212 hits. The city also has been using the streaming capabilities to train firefighters, who can now watch the videos at their convenience, rather than meeting as a group to train.
In preparation for Denver’s municipal election in May, cable channel staff are working with community groups to organize candidate forums, which it will stream on its Web site. Each candidate can record a three-minute video, and viewers can link to video segments of candidates speaking at the various forums.
Several Denver agencies — including animal licensing and wastewater management — are producing informational programming for the city Web site. And, last winter the city broadcast public works crews scraping ice and clearing streets to show residents how it was addressing storm damage. “Streaming video has opened a whole new world, and Denver 8 TV is a whole new channel,” DeLollis says. “This application has created outreach possibilities and shown us how to maximize resources that we didn’t use before. We see even more tremendous value going forward.”
Betsy Harter is an Athens, Ga.-based freelance writer.
Stream vs. download
Download-and-play video used to be the primary way to distribute video on the Web. Users would have to download entire media files to their hard drives before watching them.
Streaming media is audio or video sent in compressed form over the Internet and displayed in a viewer as it arrives. With streaming media, a Web user does not have to wait to download a large file before seeing the video or hearing the sound.
To ensure continuous delivery of a video, streaming transfers digital media (video, voice and data) simultaneously. Streaming video can be embedded with time-stamps and searched, which can help viewers skip to specific features quickly.
— San Francisco-based Granicus