Electronic democracy

Governments look to Webcasting as a way to fight apathy and cynicism, Tim Kridel reports.

When was the last time you attended a government meeting? If you’re like most people, it probably was sometime between several years ago and never, for reasons such as difficulty finding time to attend or aversion to the boredom of sitting through hours of discussion just to get to one personally relevant agenda item.

That situation undermines the concept of participatory democracy, to the point that many governments in Europe and the United States are turning to Webcasting as a way to encourage more citizens to pay attention and get involved. That interest is creating opportunities for AV integrators and vendors. Those already selling into that market say that government Webcasting currently is in the early stages of a long-term trend, with plenty of growth over the next several years.

“In the U.K., there are 411 local authorities,” says Keith Young, chief executive of Public-I, whose Webcasting clients include Kent County in the U.K. and several North American municipalities. “Fifty-three are Webcasting on a regular basis. There are probably another 12 that do one-off events. That number has increased by 18 in the past 12 months, and we expect to see it increase by another 30 this year.”

Some vendors say that U.K. and U.S. governments are getting into Webcasting at a faster rate than other countries.

“I don’t see as much activity in the rest of Europe as in the U.K.,” says Bryan Lewis, chairman of Media On Demand, which sells directly to governments and via AV integrators. “There is growth. It’s not massive. It’s probably a year or two behind the U.S. in terms of activity. There seems to be a lot more going on in the U.S. than in the U.K. and the rest of Europe.”

More than talking heads

In the government market, Webcasting frequently consists of more than just a live or archived stream of a meeting. In fact, much of the appeal – both for governments and citizens – is the ability to access more than just the meeting itself.

For example, instead of forcing virtual attendees to search the municipality’s Web site or the Internet for background information on an agenda item, Webcasting lets the government embed one-click access to that information in the Webcast console. Viewers also can search archives for a specific topic or speaker, and governments can conduct surveys during live Webcasts to get instant feedback.

“At the same time you’re watching a live broadcast, you get a lot of other information,” says Carsten Haack Nielsen, product manager at Danish Interpretation Systems (DIS) A/S.

That adjunct information is one key difference between Webcasting and broadcasting, a distinction that’s particularly noteworthy in countries where many government meetings are already available on TV. For example, in the United States, cable TV operators must set aside one or more channels for public-access programming, including municipal proceedings, in order to be authorized to provide video services in a particular city.

But until Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) technology becomes widely deployed – sometime in the next decade – cable TV lacks the ability to provide more than just audio and video. As a result, Webcasting still has ample sales opportunities in countries where government meetings are already widely available on broadcast and cable TV.

In some countries, the Webcasting market is driven partly by mandates.

“[U.K.] councils have to demonstrate that they’re using e-government techniques, which include streaming media,” says Charles Mills, managing director of Twofour Communications. “That’s not an incentive. It’s an obligation.”

A 614 percent boost

One major driver behind the government Webcasting market is the belief that the more citizens see what’s going on behind the scenes, the less jaded, suspicious or apathetic they’re likely to be.

“In Italy and Eastern Europe particularly, one of the drivers is the decline in the numbers of people voting in local elections, which is a concern,” Mills says. “There’s a strong driver toward encouraging public access to decision-making.”

The European Union’s eParticipate project assessed the relationship between Webcasting and public participation. (For more information, visit www.eparticipate.org.) One goal was to increase meeting attendance – virtual and physical – by 25 percent. In the end, attendance increased nearly 614 percent.

Just as important, that increase doesn’t appear to be temporary: Eighty-nine percent of eParticipate participants said that they plan to watch government Webcasts in the future. That response is noteworthy because AV integrators and vendors can use it when selling into governments that are skeptical about Webcasts’ long-term value, perhaps dismissing the 614 percent increase as simply as happy, one-time byproduct of government Webcasting’s novelty factor.

A second major driver is the growing availability of broadband throughout Europe. Although it’s possible to watch Webcasts on a dial-up connection, the best user experience is over broadband. Young and other Webcasting vendors say that 150-250 kbps download speeds are sufficient for a good streaming experience.

“A normal ADSL [connection] – 256 [kbps] – would be normal a perfect picture,” said DIS’s Nielsen. Server-side mechanisms and settings such as picture size, refresh rates and compression provide flexibility for dealing with connections at the low end of the acceptable range.

The type of meeting can increase bandwidth requirements. For example, some vendors say that planning meetings tend to have high viewership.

“They actually generate more interest than the council meetings,” says Media on Demand’s Lewis.

One of the meeting’s topics also can produce spikes in viewership. For example, suppose that a city council is considering whether to enact an ordinance banning skateboards in public places. That debate is likely to attract teen-agers to the Webcast rather than in person because younger demographics tend to be more comfortable interacting via technology – including with their governments.

For now, however, most government Webcasts don’t drive large numbers of viewers, although that’s likely to change as more citizens become comfortable with the concept of virtual democracy.

“The viewing figures are not large,” says Lewis, whose company currently supports six councils’ Webcasts. “You’re talking about not much more than 100.”

The price of transparency

The eParticipate project also assessed the cost of Webcasting. It turned out to be as surprisingly small as attendance was surprisingly large.

“It identified that the added cost of Webcasting was only 0.3 percent,” Young says.

The final price tag varies significantly based on factors such as the number of Webcasts and audience size. But some vendors say that those costs aren’t high enough to be deal-breakers for most governments.

“A council can Webcast all of its democratic meeting for somewhere under £20,000 pounds a year,” Young says. That estimate includes hardware, software, bandwidth and support.

Some governments can spend less on Webcasting if they already broadcast their meetings for TV or simply record the audio for easier transcription later on. Many Webcasting systems work with existing AV equipment, thereby reducing the start-up costs and, in the process, knocking down one barrier to sales.

One example is Media on Demand’s Streampac system, which can use a council chamber’s existing mics. Relatively inexpensive Webcams can be added, with Streampac automatically panning a camera at the speaker as soon as he or she presses a mic button.

“You don’t need to have any cameramen,” Lewis says, although his company also offers camera work as an option.

Personnel is another cost than can get overlooked or underestimated. For example, one of the reasons why Webcasting is attractive to many governments is for the ability to distribute adjunct information such as speaker bios and minutes from past meetings. Someone has to identify, locate and post that information, so personnel hours have to be factored into the ongoing costs.

“Although there are lots of clever content-management systems, it still requires somebody to think about it,” Young says.

In some countries, money is available to help subsidize the cost of Webcasting, thereby adding another market driver. For example, the U.K. offers grant money to local governments to help them improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their planning processes. That can include funding Webcasts of planning meetings.

“Other councils use citizen participation money or community cohesion money,” Young says.

Like any video production, government Webcasts have to balance costs with the viewing experience. For example, although one way to keep costs low is to use a single camera, the person or software operating it needs to account for viewer fatigue. Otherwise, the Webcasts can turn off viewers instead of attracting them.

“Having a fixed camera on one person for a half-hour is not what I call enticing the viewer,” Young says.

The other extreme is having too many cameras. Although the use of Webcams is one way to reduce the cost of multi-camera installations, they still produce feeds that someone or something has to mix and manage – an additional cost.

Although vendors say that the government Webcasting market has plenty of room for growth over the next several years, the products and experience there can be leveraged for selling into other industries.

“Take the car industry,” says Finn Halken, CEO and managing director of DIS. “You could easily records about how to change a part and then search to find that part. We don’t see a limitation in how this can be used.”

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