The Case for Embracing Video Technologies in Government

From police body cameras to virtual city council meetings to deepfakes, video wove its way through the many technology stories of 2020, and state and local IT agencies need to embrace it in their portfolios.

soft focus photo of a computer screen during a zoom meeting
<a href="https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/bucharest-romania-march-31-2020-shallow-1689677470" target="_blank">Shutterstock/M.Moira</a>
As The Buggles said in 1980, video killed the radio star. To put a government spin on it, “It’s more of a consumer technology,” or “It’s not my department.” In thinking about 2020, however, video has morphed from sleeper to mission-critical technology during the first year of the pandemic.

It isn’t often that a 40-year-old song is weirdly prescient about the repercussions of modern technology, including video, which has been viewed as either a stepchild or taken for granted by the public-sector IT community. Both NASCIO and GT’s sister organization, the Center for Digital Government, have tracked the preferences and priorities of public CIOs over the years. The resulting lists itemize video-adjacent technologies and service delivery needs but have never used the word. They include things like “enabling remote work” through “collaboration platforms and streaming services” to help deliver “online/digital services” and “citizen communication services.” These lists consistently give top ranking to cybersecurity, an element that is fundamental to the integrity of video in all its forms and manifestations.

If the virus is now policy — and it is — then video needs to have a consistent steward as it takes on a vastly expanded role in disrupting the way the public sector gets stuff done in the COVID-19 era. With many school buildings still not operating at capacity, responsibility for figuring out video for online learning has fallen largely to teachers. With many government departments under work-from-home orders, sustaining regular (and sometimes really long) video staff meetings falls to line employees; the same goes for touchless meetings and appointments with members of the public.

Back in the pre-pandemic days, if staff had problems in or with the building, they would call facilities people who had responsibility for the physical infrastructure. Who exactly has that responsibility for this digital video infrastructure? And it is a diverse infrastructure at that. Like the private sector, government’s use of moving pictures has evolved from video conferencing rooms (the predecessors of Zoom) to mobile phones, tablets and laptops.  

When it works, video looks easy, but that masks myriad complexities: live sources and displays (handheld to wall projected) in the wild, disparate frame rates, uneven bandwidth, and the need to capture it all for future use. These are not entirely new problems, but they are in a much wider context where video is no longer discretionary. Consider the experience of law enforcement.

Public safety was forced to confront video earlier than most civilian agencies, what with the social, political and technological ramifications of ubiquitous surveillance with cameras embedded atop light posts, in response vehicles (dashcams) and on uniforms (body cams).

These efforts push the limits of analytics practices and the ability to index, archive and retrieve data. The experience here may have key learnings for the rest of government.  

An added dimension in all of this that differentiates it from most other technologies is that the questions video raises are about both carriage and content. Deepfakes and cheap fakes — banned by Twitter and Facebook but still easy to find using the search engine of your choice — demonstrate how evolving technologies aid consolidation of the power in society and sow distrust. The fakes are among a panoply of manipulated media and offensive cybertools often used in disinformation. It will take more than artificial intelligence alone to mitigate the effects of the fakes. It will require technical and social solutions, including carbon-based life forms in government who can think through it all.

Video is the most potent and potentially explosive data blob out there. Public IT cannot leave it that way. Not your department? If not IT, then who? Video in all its forms and with all its foibles has not been seen as IT’s issue, but it is IT’s problem.

Paul W. Taylor is the Executive Editor at E.Republic and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.