Monkey Casting

The Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services discovered a valuable way to inform the public about an epidemic.

by / October 13, 2003
When the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS) had information to share about the monkeypox epidemic that spread through the state in May and June, stuffing sheets of paper into a fax machine was not sufficient as a means to reach the masses.

The department needed something better. Matt Duffy, IT supervisor responsible for Web communications at the DHFS, began looking for ways his department could serve the state's citizens in the most cost-effective and successful manner.

Months before the outbreak in Wisconsin, Duffy met with Joe Plasterer, director of strategic products at Sonic Foundry, to understand the benefits of webcasting information to an Internet public.

"When I was listening to people in the division of public health and our public information officer talk about [planning a news conference], and how we can reach as many d work with SBC to produce the monkeypox presentation's audio portion, which would be placed on the DHFS Web site so interested parties could listen to the conference. But Duffy, after meeting with Plasterer, realized more could be done.

"Why not take it to the next step?" Duffy said. "For what we were going to be charged to have this done, it would be a nice down payment on a MediaSite Live box, and we'd be able to do this ourselves."

The Ins and Outs
Creating a webcast is fairly straightforward, said Plasterer.

"Before you actually give the presentation, you create kind of a framework of time, place and information about the webcast," he said. "Then our MediaSite Live software, our server-side software, creates a webcast template."

This template is housed in what Sonic Foundry calls a "capture station," which looks like a black aluminum suitcase, and is carried to the presentation site.

"In the case of a presenter, all they need to do is show up at the place with the laptops, say with the PowerPoint on it or whatever information they want to show, and then give their presentation," said Plasterer.

Once the unit is in place, technical staff puts the presentation online.

"You take the video from the video camera, and you plug into whatever the audio source is -- it could be just the native microphone system they have there -- and then you hang it onto the network," said Plasterer. "Then the capture station talks to our presentation server infrastructure, which is a Web server and a video server. So when the presentation is created, it's encoded on the fly and streamed out to whoever's viewing via the URL. All [the viewers] need to do is open up their browser after having clicked on the link."

Another draw of webcasting is the presentation's availability after the initial webcast. After the live webcast, the presentation can be saved on the server for on-demand viewing, Plasterer said.

"In the case of the hour and 17-minute monkeypox webcast we did, it took about a minute and a half to upload the whole thing to the servers, so it would be available for on-demand viewing for anyone who didn't get to see it live," he said.

Show Time in Wisconsin
When the time came for the DHFS to prepare the presentation about monkeypox, there were a number of factors to consider in the production of a presentation to ensure the webcast would be as effective as possible.

First the DHFS had to gather health experts who had been working with monkeypox information. Then it became a matter of locating an audience.

"Things happening here in Wisconsin could be happening in other states or other nations," Duffy said.

This put the DHFS in the position of having to inform not only employees of state and local agencies in Wisconsin, but also a national audience -- not only were private citizens interested, but the department was also speaking to national media outlets.

Of course, there was the issue of time.

The information was there. The panel was set. But not all was well with the technical details, which needed to be in order for this to go off without a hitch.

"Windows Media Services requires port 8080 open on the firewall so it can pull the encoded video from the live system," said Duffy. "We didn't have that open. So we needed to work with our technical staff to open up that port without causing any potential security risks. In conjunction with that port, we block any incoming connections. So after the port was open on the firewall and set to allow a specific IP address access, it worked perfectly."

The department scrambled to work with Sonic Foundry's technical support staff to overcome this last-minute hurdle.

"Joe [Plasterer] and myself worked with our technical staff and their technical support services, and we worked with the Sonic Foundry people," Duffy said. "We were able to make it go in an hour's time, and even down to the last 10 minutes, we did the appropriate adjusting. We had the information and we had the panel set, but we had never done a webcast. We did trial by fire and it went great. It truly went without a hitch. Now if I had to do it over again, I'd rather plan this a week out."

Successful Endeavor
The department's inaugural webcast attracted hits from 30 different locations, which included The New York Times, NBC, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since then, there have been 196 requests to view the webcast, said Duffy.

The technology has also affected the way the department approaches information dissemination internally, he said.

"We're going to eventually have a good catalog of information like this," Duffy said. "[Because] you can have slides or screen shots or Web sites or information to reference, it'll be a great training tool, as well. We're going to use this internally and externally. It's going to change some of the ways we do business for the better -- for the citizens of the state, for the citizens of this nation and for other countries."