Collaboration between the Government Information Center (GIC) of Miami-Dade County, Fla., and the County Clerk’s office, has yielded a more interactive and accessible webcasting experience for the local community.
When a visitor to Miami-Dade County’s Board of County Commissioners (BCC) committee meetings webpage selects a video of one of the archived events, the video begins in the upper-left side of a pop-up box. On the right, an embedded PDF of the agenda or minutes appears. Underneath the video are clickable sections of the agenda, which if selected, will automatically fast-forward or rewind the video to that part of the proceedings.
Although the feature isn’t necessarily groundbreaking by itself, it’s another step in Miami-Dade County’s ongoing effort to enable citizens to be fully invested in local government.
“Providing tools to help people be aware of what is going on and engage in decision-making is an important thing to do,” said Judi Zito, director of the Government Information Center. “We’re trying to build on this over time and it helps make government more transparent.” The county spent about $150k to start the online video platform, which included configuration services, training, encoder servers and the first year of service. The county is spending roughly $3,000 a month for the solution.
Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade County’s clerk of the courts, agreed, and said he believes the interactive webcasting will help make the commission the most transparent in the U.S.
“The focus of this office is to bring about technologies that make access easier,” Ruvin said. “How can you get better than the actual video from these meetings? It empowers the public with easily accessible information.”
The two Miami-Dade County offices were entwined before the collaboration began. Ruvin’s role as clerk of the court includes serving as clerk of the board for the BCC. His office takes committee meeting minutes and records votes, while GIC is responsible for televising the meetings and providing support.
The seed for having interactive webcasting was planted in 1996. At that time, Miami-Dade County implemented a legislative tracking system. After a few years, webcasting was initiated, but the need to combine the two was something Zito was aware of even then.
Three years ago, after electing to work with Granicus Inc., a San Francisco-based company specializing in live and on-demand streaming video, the ability to finally make the online footage more interactive was achieved.
As Zito explained, Granicus was able to help with the webcasting in terms of added features and assisted with bumping up the number of viewers that could simultaneously access the system. Additionally a voting solution in the webcasting software is being worked on for use in BCC meetings, which will further integrate legislative affairs and the community.
Once operational, the voting system will allow BCC members to vote electronically from their seats. The votes would then be automatically captured by the legislative tracking system that’s already in place, tallied and then available for immediate display.
Production of the “searchable” video by agenda item isn’t an automatic process. According to Zito, it can take up to an hour to finalize a video once a particular meeting concludes. But work on the video begins with employees in the Clerk’s office.
Diane Collins, the Clerk of the Board’s division chief, explained that the Clerk’s office operates the equipment that indexes the agenda items as they are being considered, while the BCC meeting is in session. By doing this, the amount of time it takes to get the finalized video up on the website is reduced.
“We have gotten feedback from a lot of county departments indicating how much it facilitates review of issues and … that it is a very usable service,” said Collins.
In addition to current meetings, county staff members are working to get video of various meetings online from as far back as the 1980s. Although the footage won’t be searchable, agendas and minutes will be available, so those interested in doing research will have the material at their fingertips.
“We’ve been recording meetings since 1987 on VHS tapes and stored [them] in the basement of our library,” said Zito. “The media is starting to deteriorate, so we were converting them to preserve the record.”
In addition to the video, old agendas and minutes are being uncovered by Ruvin’s office, which have included some historical surprises, said Laurie Reaves, associate director of the Technical Services Division in the Miami-Dade County Clerk of the Courts.
“[We have found] handwritten agendas from the 1800s and are trying to bring that to the forefront,” Reaves said. But this is a phased approach, she said, so the material that’s easiest to tackle is coming first.
The Government Information Center and the Clerk’s office continue to work on a variety of projects together. Ruvin said he hopes to see BCC subcommittee meetings given the same interactive webcasting treatment, while Zito added that the webcasting system is also being used internally for virtual staff meetings for the county’s 27,000 employees.
Also in the works is a project that would give people the ability to watch BCC meetings on mobile devices. Donn Patchen, station manager at Miami-Dade TV, explained that the county is one of 10 governments involved in a pilot program with Granicus.
“This will be a huge help for folks that want to listen on the go,” Patchen said. “It’s just a pilot right now and we’re testing it on archived meetings only. We’re hoping that in 60 days, we’ll be live streaming.”