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Local government, council chambers and their related services can provide interesting integration challenges. Dan Goldstein reports on the state of a key, public-sector market in these troubled economic times.

We are at a point in history when even the most diehard of free-marketeer business people are looking to the public sector as a source of revenue and growth. With corporate spending on hold at best (and shrinking rapidly at worst), product vendors and service providers of all kinds are falling over themselves to court the state.

Professional AV is no exception. Banks and other financial institutions may have been the recipients of vast amounts of European taxpayers’ cash over the past nine months, but they have used most of it to ease the pain of their asset write-downs or shore up their capital positions, rather than to make capital investments in technology or infrastructure. And while all those bailouts will take their toll on governments’ ability to spend in the future, the current wisdom seems to be: “Let’s keep printing the money until the GDP figures tell us we can stop.”

But just because government bodies are being told they can still spend their budgets, doesn’t mean they are all going on a no-bags-barred shopping spree at the local shopping mall. Like any private-sector company, public-sector bodies have to justify every last euro that they spend. So, if you are in charge of a local council budget and an integrator comes knocking on your door offering you a new discussion system, you have to ask yourself (or them) some pretty searching questions. Will it make our debates more efficient? Will it encourage voter participation in democracy? Will it make our council more accountable? And, as an important aside, might it pay for itself if it helps us to generate more income from hiring out our chambers for third-party (no pun intended) events?

Let’s take that last question first. In terms of AV technology, political debating in our continent has gone through something of a ‘trickle-down’ effect over the past 15-20 years. Modern democratic procedures such as electronic voting, simultaneous translation, and automated archiving of congresses were adopted first by European institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg, then began to filter down to the national government level, where they are now widespread if not quite universal. Regional or local government is still a bit behind the curve, partly because many of their debating chambers are located in historic buildings full of the kind of antique furnishings that can make the discreet installation of new technology prohibitively expensive.

Increasingly, though, councils are realising that it can be money well spent. Jon Hunnisett, Managing Director of Sound Advice in the UK, says: “People are willing to pay the money and, more important than that, they are willing to argue the toss with English Heritage and the other preservation bodies who tend to say: ‘You can’t touch this period interior’. These facilities have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, because if they aren’t, then the facility isn’t going to be modern enough to be hired out, which means there’s no revenue, which means there’s no money to maintain all that gold leaf and veneer.”

At its simplest, this modernising of facilities can be something as simple as installing removable gooseneck microphones so that, if a local family wants to use a beautiful period interior for a wedding party, the mics don’t muck up the photography. But modern systems need a modern infrastructure, and running structured copper cable or optical fibre around an oak-panelled and marble-clad council chamber – while keeping the exterior appearance intact is nobody’s idea of a fun day out.

However, while there’s no substitute for the combination of ingenuity and artisanship that distinguishes an integrator like Sound Advice, manufacturers also have a role to play. As Hunnisett says: “The older and more restricted the space, the more important it is to be able to customise the layout of the delegate stations, the size of the panels, and so on. Some manufacturers are helpful there; others are only interested in selling you what’s in the box.”

It’s also true that some interiors are deemed so valuable that not even the most considerate of contractors is permitted to touch them, regardless of how much political pressure might be brought to bear. In these circumstances, wireless technology increasingly has a role to play – not least because it is finally being seen as fit for purpose. Ennio Prase, Partner of Italian pro-audio distributor Prase Engineering, says that “2.4GB RF technology has proved to be totally unstable in Italy, as the country got more and more populated with wireless-equipped laptops, routers, bridges and so on. The wireless conference systems that used it became compromised, both in terms of performance and in terms of security.

“So now we’re seeing a move towards digital IR, with products like Audio-Technica’s ATCS-60 conference system, which offers bi-directional infra-red transmission of audio along with translation and the possibility to add external sources, coming into their own. Because the transmission is over IR there are no security issues – everything stays within the four walls of the congress. And it’s very easy to set up: just draw your own room topology in software, and you can be up and running in 30 minutes.”

If you’ve gone to all the trouble of transforming your historic council chamber into a multimedia congress space, while keeping all its traditional visual appeal, then it makes sense to broadcast your debates to the general public. If the voters are up in arms about parliamentarians abusing their right to expenses, then at least show them that you are having a serious discussion about just possibly paying some of the money back, someday.

“Politicians want to build bridges between themselves and the people who have voted them into power,” says Jack de Keyser, Managing Director of Belgian-based AV-DIS, which acts as an exclusive partner for Danish Interpretation Systems, assisting local distributors and integrators with design and project support in territories such as France, Benelux, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and parts of North Africa. “They want to make their sessions public, and to open them up to a wider audience.”

It’s an application that webcasting could almost have been invented for, and video streaming technology now tops the list of ‘wants’ for many local councils right across Europe. It seems there is now barely an AV installer working in the public sector who hasn’t been asked to integrate camera-follow technology with delegate mic activity, for example.

“Imagine being a citizen in a town and deciding that you want to catch up on a debate that’s been held during the day, when you’ve been at work,” continues de Keyser. “You simply come home, Google your local council, and you’re directed to a web streaming channel that allows you to view what you want, when you want.”

With so many layers of democracy having so much to discuss, it’s important that each council has a way of structuring its webcasts so that the public can search debates by date, by topic, by participation and so on. This is where the latest, touchscreen-equipped delegate stations such as the DIS DC6990 come in, as de Keyser explains:

“DIS is the first company to offer streaming and archiving linked to an existing database, which obviates the need to create a manual list of delegates during the congress. Each delegate is recognised by their own personalised USB chip, the database gets put on a server, and you can access it using a web browser or Windows MediaPlayer. These two tools are free downloads and, just as important, they are easy to use because people are familiar with them. The rest of the world is using YouTube – why shouldn’t politicians?”

De Keyser cites the city council of Breda in the Netherlands as a successful DC6990 installation – already up and running for a year, with all aspects of the database-driven software being widely used and appreciated by the politicians whose budgets have paid for them. LCD interactivity, electronic voting and the automated creation of indices for archiving are not just theoretical benefits on a spec sheet. They’re being exploited in the here-and-now, making democracy a more open process and bringing new efficiencies to council procedures.

Jon Hunnisett is keen to point out, though, that for all the clever IT integration in the world, a web stream is only as good as the quality of the mics and the cameras that capture the AV data. “The obvious advantage of webcasting is that whereas typed minutes give you a verbatim view of what’s been said, an AV archive brings you all the inflexions and subtleties of delivery,” Hunnisett says. “But you have to have high audio and video quality to achieve that, and we’ve been doing lots of upgrades to bring facilities up to webcasting standard.”

As for the future, Hunnisett concurs with Prase that digital IR technology will find favour over RF for wireless congress, particularly in major cities or buildings where the amount of wi-fi traffic is already pushing the infrastructure to breaking point. Jack de Keyser believes database-driven systems will continue to develop, making it easier for councils to incorporate absentee voters, for example, or add guests from neighbouring authorities to their debates without compromising the integrity of their archiving. And Ennio Prase believes videoconferencing will also have a role to play in allowing local authorities to broaden their horizons:

“Imagine if you have the councils of Venice and Padua wanting to discuss something that’s of common interest to them as neighbouring cities. Instead of all the delegates from one city having to travel to the other, they simply stay where they are, have their debate, vote on it, archive it, and webcast it. So long as the politicians feel that they are secure and that nobody can impersonate them, there is no limit to how far their meetings can go.”

Which is all fine and dandy, of course, and must bode well for local-authority demand for AV and media serving technology.

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