What's Possible

Streaming Government in a Smartphone Era

May 4, 2017
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Streaming Government in a Smartphone Era
Thanks to the Open Media Project, residents can follow local government happenings online instead of being physically present at town hall meetings. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
When you can’t get the voters to come to City Hall, the Open Media Project brings City Hall to their fingertips.

Provoking a citywide debate about the safety of downtown Eugene, Ore., isn’t what Matt Sayre set out to do when he put together a three-minute video of a passionate citizen speaking at a City Council meeting and posted it on Facebook, where it reached an audience of 40,000 people. But that’s exactly what happened.

“Not everyone makes it to the meetings, so to be effective, we brought the meeting to where [citizens] are: on social media,” Sayre says.

Sayre stitched the clips together using software created by Open Media Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit. Its Open Media Project initiative transforms traditional local government meetings into modern, in-the-palm-of-your-hand video streams.

In today’s increasingly hectic world, constituents don’t have time to track whether their state and local politicians are upholding their campaign promises. Combined with that is a decline in local news coverage. The outcome? Power is being handed to lobbyists, says Tony Shawcross, the foundation’s executive director.

“We’ve seen trust in government and voter turnout drop for 50 years, and we think the reason is because government is falling behind the times. Our big-picture goal is lowering the bar for what it takes to be engaged,” Shawcross says.

Accessible via desktop or mobile, school boards and municipal and state governments can use the foundation’s cloud-based platform — Open Media Project (OMP) — to give citizens quick access to what’s going on. Constituents can watch live webcasts of government meetings and search through archived agendas and transcribed video files to jump straight to points in the video where specific topics of interest (like “homeless shelters” or “tobacco”) are mentioned. If users find a moment worth sharing, they can, like Sayre, package a video to share on social media.

The tools themselves might not sound flashy, but the transparency they promote is what makes democracy function, says Neil Moyer, director of the Lane Council of Government’s Metro Television, which coordinates with the foundation to stream meetings for Eugene and other nearby cities.

“Our driving motivation is not just to replay meetings but to help our community thrive, and I really believe we thrive only when we have good governance. We only get good governance when people are paying attention.”

Sometimes, politicians push back on OMP’s capabilities, hesitant to practice full disclosure online. But as a nonprofit, the Open Media Foundation prioritizes what its beneficiaries — constituents themselves — need above all else. “We’re putting in features that are above and beyond what governments demand and expect in terms of accessibility,” Shawcross says.

The Open Media Foundation was founded in 2001 under its original name [denverevolution]. In 2006, it helped the City of Denver set up a new public broadcasting station on the cheap. That project attracted the attention of Andrew Romanoff, then speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, who was trying to set up a state version of C-SPAN.

In 2013, the foundation created a video-on-demand tool for the legislature’s web portal. The number of visitors to the site doubled and inspired Shawcross to replicate the idea on a smaller scale. By the end of 2016, 10 local governments in Colorado used the service.

The Open Media Project is supported by Comcast NBCUniversal and Fast Forward, an accelerator for tech-focused nonprofits. It makes its software available through an online portal, and the video is streamed through YouTube. The basic software package is free for towns with less than 5,000 residents, $3,000 for cities of 5,000 to 50,000 residents and $6,000 for cities of more than 50,000. The organization’s founders hope the software’s low cost will help spread it to local government websites across the country.  

Back in Eugene, Sayre’s video posts have increased attendance at city council meetings where community safety is a key agenda item.

“To hear what someone is saying at a meeting and to see their body language is engaging,” Sayre says. “Energy attracts energy.”

Sayre hopes that this rise in community involvement in the political process will lead to greater safety in downtown Eugene.

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This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

Homepage photo by iStock/Getty.

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