County eyes streaming Board meetings online for public

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 29, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

PRINCE GEORGE – In an age where nearly any semblance of information can be attained at the touch of a finger to a smartphone or computer, from news to historical facts, to the most complex of questions, soon, Prince George County is looking to further bolster its ability to deliver vital information from the local government to residents by bringing meetings directly to them.

Earlier this month, the Prince George Board of Supervisors heard a proposal from the county’s director of information technology Kirsten Cherry that could see  regular supervisor meetings inside the county boardroom be streamed live to the county’s website and other sources for residents and the community-at-large to be able to watch live or on-demand through an archive system. 

During her report, Cherry detailed information gathered from Dallas, Texas-based Swagit Productions, LLC, who provides streaming media solutions to cities, counties, states, and school districts, along with comprehensive video production services for clients. 

While Cherry stressed this proposal would have to go out to bid in order to get the most competitive price and the information provided by Swagit Productions was simply to provide a general cost estimation, the company said in its executive summary that their in-house streaming video solution would allow for their clients to stream “their public content live and on-demand through the jurisdiction’s website.” In addition, those recorded meetings would be easily accessible on traditional desktop computers and laptops, along with smart devices, like phones and tablets. 

Cherry noted the content could also be broadcast on Facebook Live, the social media platform’s live streaming service to the county’s official page, where it would also be archived by Facebook and available on Prince George County’s Facebook page for viewing at a later date. 

In terms of production, Cherry said to supervisors that the costs involved with such a venture centers around the up-front costs needed to pay for cameras and the required equipment to carry the live stream back to the company, who would then handle the live broadcast of the meeting and the monthly costs of broadcasting said meetings. 

Within Swagit’s general proposal, the encoding equipment would cost nearly $7,100, while the up-front costs for the camera equipment would vary based on the number of cameras desired for the county’s streaming setup.

During her remarks, Cherry showed some examples of other local governments who use live streaming services to broadcast their meetings to the community. For some governments, a single camera is used, placed toward the back or the side of the audience and it is pointed squarely at the governing body, while others used a two- or three-camera setup that allowed for a camera to be fixed on the governing body, a close-up camera that would pan and zoom on those who may be speaking among the governing body, and a third camera that would aim at the podium where the public may be delivering remarks or an individual may be providing some form of presentation to leaders.

According to the Swagit, the upfront costs for a three-camera system, which includes the cameras and various pieces of equipment, including uninterruptible power supplies, cables, racking and shelving, and other items totals just under $39,000, while a single-camera option requires far fewer items and only the one camera at a cost of $10,500.

Swagit touts its streaming solutions as hands-free, noting throughout their presentation to Cherry that “no staff time or resources” would be required of the county as part of their services and Swagit would be “controlled remotely” by their own staff and not county staff members.

Alongside the upfront costs, Cherry noted Swagit and most companies typically have monthly recurring fees that go along with the execution of streaming services. According to Swagit’s information, the cost of streaming “25 non-indexed meetings a year, including live streaming” totals $395 per month, or $4,740 a year.

The same number of meetings with live-streaming but they are indexed by Swagit’s staff using the county’s meeting agenda as a guide and allow for users to click to specific parts of the agenda and be taken to the related section of the recorded meeting would cost $625 per month or $7,500 per year.

For slightly less, Swagit offers up to 100 meetings, but the indexing would be done by the client, in this case, the local government, while still allowing Swagit to handle live streaming services for $550 per month, or $6,600 a year.

Currently, as of 2018, the Prince George Board of Supervisors meets 21 times during the course of the year for regular meetings, twice monthly, except for June, July, and August, where the county only holds one meeting per month. 

There were additional optional costs also mentioned by Cherry and shown in Swagit’s example of pricing, such as closed captioning, which could be bundled but a specific price was not available, along with additional edited and on-demand indexed meetings, which would cost an additional $150 per meeting.

They also priced the cost of live streaming to platforms like Facebook and YouTube at $125 per month, or $1,500 a year.

During the work session, supervisors expressed interest in investigating the proposal further.

“I have talked to many people and they have said they want to see something like this done because some people can’t get to the meetings, but they have said they would watch it if it was streamed on TV or online,” Supervisor Marlene Waymack remarked.

Cherry also brought up the idea of streaming the broadcast to television, most likely to the county’s public access channel for people who may not have internet at their home to be able to watch the meetings.

“Let’s investigate this some more,” Supervisor Floyd Brown, Jr. said following Waymack’s comments. “Let’s get the bids and have them come back here and present and we can make a decision from there.

The figures provided by Swagit were merely general costs and not definitive totals and Cherry said they will move forward with engaging at least three companies in possible bids for this proposal.

This is not the first time Prince George County has pursued some form of broadcasting meetings. In February 2007, supervisors at the time narrowly voted 3-2 to purchase $3,700 worth of video equipment to record eight board meetings to be aired on the Comcast public access channel. After those eight meetings, the project was ended.

Currently, while the county does not have a live-streaming option for residents to watch meetings, during the course of most regular board meetings and work sessions, county staff uses social media, including Facebook and Twitter to provide regular updates on votes that occur during the meeting, with a meeting recap being placed on the county website following the meeting. 

In addition, agenda items and other materials are available on the county’s website, http://princegeorgeva.org.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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