Video In The Public Interest

Video In The Public Interest

Byline: Tom Patrick McAuliffe

AS FUNDING SHRINKS, PUBLIC SERVICE organizations large and small are traveling less and are looking to video and broadband streaming to do more. Using video in all its forms from tape to streaming, national, state, and local governments are increasingly reaching the military and civilian populations with traditional tape-based titles, community television, and streaming video on the Internet or local area networks (LANs).

As T1, DSL, and cable broadband access become more commonplace in both the private and public sectors, video on the Web has the inside track as a primary communications and training resource. Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, are at the forefront of video streaming with programs and initiatives that are in use today in Iraq with our military forces. At the state level, transportation departments are using video to monitor traffic and document projects. And at the local level, community access TV and law enforcement deployment of the medium – both on tape and online – is at an all-time high.

The legacy of tape-based analog systems won’t disappear tomorrow, as they’re just too cost-effective for cash-strapped public organizations. But the demand for digital content delivered via disk, tape, or streaming grows every day both for internal communications and community outreach.

Located just outside Washington, D.C., is a center with a special mission. The Armed Forces Pest Management Board (AFPMB) ensures that deployed active-duty military, Army Reserve forces, and Department of Defense (DoD) installations have effective control over insects and rodents that carry diseases. The organization serves as a scientific advisory body to the DoD, establishing policies that ensure safe and environmentally sound use of pest control systems. Be they fleas, ticks, roaches, rodents, or feral animals carrying diseases such as malaria, Hantavirus, and West Nile Virus, the bug hunters at AFPMB deal with them.

The command began streaming operations in July, so viewership is still low. Once word gets out, AFPMB expects that more and more people will use the system to view content geared toward entomologists, pest management professionals, and sanitation specialists. Currently, they stream using Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite, a Canon GL2 camera, and two remote fixed-mount Axis 2130 PTZ Network cameras with pan, tilt, and zoom abilities. The organization is also looking at adding a nonlinear editing system, possibly an Avid, in the near future.

David Hill, network systems analyst for AFPMB, is responsible for streaming services, the web page, an online journal database, and the email server, and is the primary contact with the Pentagon IT support staff. “Our primary focus for our streaming media solutions is to provide another avenue for our constituents to view our quarterly board meetings,” Hill says. “Travel budgets throughout the government have become more limited, and we saw this as an opportunity to provide our members with the option to participate remotely via the Internet. This technology allows them to view the proceedings anywhere in the world at their location and leisure. We’ve also been using Polycom video-teleconferencing [VTC] units to allow some of the military members here to participate in meetings and other VTC-enabled functions.”

Video in general, and streaming in particular have decreased the time and cost of several of the daily operations at AFPMB. The savings have enabled the command to allocate a significant amount of its budget for new IT- and AV-related projects.

“We purchased one Mediasite system, and now the second system is being ordered,” Hill said. “We also have a full audio suite including a Mackie 1202-VLZ Pro mixer, RNC 1773 compressor, Shure wireless lavalier mics, and Shure UC table mics. In our main conference room we have ceiling-mounted projectors [NEC LT157s] and a surround-sound speaker system [Polk Atrium 45]. We have several Dell PowerEdge servers that house the back-end of the streaming media solution, including the Windows Media Server and the data repository for all of our video content.”

The AFPMB has had teleconferencing capabilities since September 2003 and has now completed beta testing its new Mediasite streaming. “We now have one additional IT person on staff to support the streaming media solution,” explains Hill. “The best thing about streaming is the ability to reach large numbers of DoD people anytime and anywhere around the world. The content is available 24/7 for anyone who has the means to view it.”

But all this technology is not without its challenges, according to Hill. “One of the worst things in implementing a new streaming tool is the fact that there are multiple digital standards [Real, Windows Media, Apple QuickTime, etc.] and several flavors of audio and video codecs to work with,” he says. “This lack of a coherent standard makes it difficult to distribute a feed that will not require someone to upgrade their player or need to download a specific codec.”

Despite these challenges, video has helped AFPMB achieve its mission. “We’re now streaming training videos from our web page, and in the past we had to ship them as VHS tapes,” says Hill. “So now we’ve reduced our costs, and our timely training materials and information is stored digitally on our server for immediate update or retrieval. When our constituents go back to their terminals at their respective installations, they’re blown away by the fact that the technology actually works so well.”

Finding a streaming system that fit the budget and that was rugged and portable was no easy feat. “Initially, we were disappointed because a majority of the vendors provide a subscription based on hosted streaming media service,” says Hill. “We wanted a solution inhouse that would give us total control over both the hardware and the software, and we did not want a third party involved. We also needed a competitive pricing agreement that would not gouge our budget. Mediasite met all of these requirements.

“Once we received the Mediasite box, it only took a couple of days to start streaming good-looking video,” Hill continues. “I think we had more issues setting up microphone placement and working out audio issues in the conference rooms than in getting the streaming system up and operational. Overall, the technology has been well received, and we’ll continue to expand our streaming capability, and in the meantime try to improve the quality of the content we produce.”

Now that the new technology has a few users it’s ready for more widespread use. “We’re already expanding our streaming media system to include another Mediasite box, and we have future plans for a mobile streaming system,” says Hill. “There are so many ways to use this technology; we’re just testing the waters to see exactly how our constituents will adapt before we throw more and more capabilities at them. We’ve quickly come a long way since our first beta test back in July, so we’re looking forward to our next big meeting or seminar to see how the user base will utilize the new technology.”

Recent live webcasts as well as other related videos are now archived on AFPBM’s website for users to access. Using Windows Media Player, the videos are ready for troops and managers to download anywhere in the world.

Wisconsin is a leader in state level organizations using video and streaming media. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) uses videotapes and streaming video for a range of internal and outreach purposes. In particular, they create PSAs for broadcast on local television stations, construction project overviews, inhouse safety topics, recruitment videos, employee orientation, and other informational videos that are delivered by tape and streaming from both its public and its inhouse websites.

The A/V department has two full-time employees creating everything from videos to webcasts. Gear includes a Mediasite streaming system (which Sonic Foundry loaned to WisDOT for trial use before they recently purchased two of the systems) four professional-grade video cameras (Panasonic AJ-D610 DVCPRO, Sony VX1000, JVC GY-DV500U, and Canon XL1), and a wide variety of other equipment: Videonics’ MXPro DV mixer, a RAMSA soundboard, Shure Beta 58s, EV shotgun mics, and portable lighting units. The team of videomakers has been busy producing live webcasts on training and teamwork, as well as videos on different divisions and projects within WisDOT.

All of these video resources are streamed. “We’ve been webcasting since December of 2003, and we just purchased two Mediasite machines about two months ago,” says Donald Faust, DOT program supervisor. “We’re still in the initial stages of learning this technology, but feel confident that we’ll be up to speed in less than a month. So far we’ve got about 10 webcasts under our belt, but we’ll see quite a few more in the near future as word spreads about this amazing technology.”

One of the first projects for the Mediasite system was a history-making bridge move. On Dec. 17, 2003, WisDOT attempted a rare engineering feat that the world could view during a live seven-hour webcast. The project involved moving a 2.8 million pound, 474ft.-long bridge 150ft. along the Mississippi River by barge. The entire event was captured on video using the Panasonic, Sony, JVC, and Canon cameras positioned at strategic locations to be used in a time-sequenced video documenting the success of the historic event.

“The entire process was broadcast via the World Wide Web using Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite Live product. This broadcast enabled engineers from around the state and indeed, the nation to view this historic engineering event from the comfort of their offices and homes,” says Faust. The seven-hour webcast was viewed by a large audience within the DOT and the state, and WisDOT received many calls and letters from viewers all over the country.

Faust and his team see many benefits to using video, and streaming video in particular. “The best thing is that it will save the state of Wisconsin dollars and time that in the past were spent traveling to meetings, training evolutions, and other DOT official events,” explains Faust. “Another positive aspect of this technology is the ability to show presentations live across the Internet while having live interaction from people in remote locations. Having one person reaching a large group of people at one time via the Web instead of traveling around the state to do the same presentation over and over again is wonderful. Now we’re doing one training class that’s recorded, then digitized, and then through the Web – that video is accessible for everyone and can be viewed on demand.

“We view this technology as one of the most efficient, cost-effective ways of communicating to large audiences. The bridge broadcast was very well received, for example. Delivering training via the new video technology will benefit the traveling public because it will enhance the department’s ability to provide up-to-date information and training to its employees,” he says.

The Mediasite equipment was chosen because it is compatible with other state agencies, including the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which has been leading the way in providing this technology to other departments within the state.

WisDOT uses videotapes and streaming not only to communicate and educate its staff and the general public, but like many other DOTs around the country, it also uses video cameras to monitor and manage highway traffic in its SmartWays transportation program. Closed circuit video cameras provide live video of traffic conditions throughout the state. This video pinpoints congestion areas and enables emergency dispatchers to provide personnel with location and incident information. In addition, the realtime data from the traffic monitoring cameras is used to provide route information to the media and motorists.

Positioned on top of 45ft. poles, Javelin and Cohu CCTV cameras are strategically placed along the freeway system in Wisconsin. These cameras are remotely controlled, and some can pan, tilt, and zoom. (WisDOT is gradually replacing older cameras with new Pelco cameras.) Video images are fed to the local traffic operations center, which assists operators in placing messages on variable signs, as well as media outlets. When an accident occurs, the video images can help operators determine if a modification of ramp meter timing should be made to avoid secondary crashes and to reduce congestion in that area. Images from some of the Milwaukee-area cameras are posted on the WisDOT website every three to five minutes so commuters can check their routes before they go.

“Eventually all bidding for highway construction projects will be accomplished via live streaming via the Internet,” says Faust. This change will enable road builders to access the bidding process from their workstations in their offices and possibly open up the bidding process, resulting in lower costs.

Oahu has one of the largest and most active community access TV networks in the country. Since the 1970s, community access ensured that cable television operators provide their customers with local programming that promotes civic dialogue and cultural preservation in exchange for being allowed to serve a particular geographic area.

With five full-time channels, Olelo Community Television streams cable programming on its website 24/7. With its main studios near Honolulu, the award-winning organization also has three other studios located around the island, with more planned for the future. When it comes to programming, Olelo TV offers something for everyone – programming about local and regional issues, coverage of legislative and city council hearings, and educational programming for kids and adults.

“We believe that Olelo can make a difference in communities by offering residents the chance to tell the stories that affect their lives. We currently have community media centers in several locations, and in the next several years we’ll be expanding this list to include other Oahu communities,” says Keali’i S. Lopez, president and CEO of Olelo Community Television. “This is an exciting opportunity to bring resources to communities because once we’re committed we want to stay and help that community develop its own voice via video programming.”

Even though the organization is a nonprofit it doesn’t mean that the tools its volunteers use are less than professional. “We’re lucky to be able to have professional video acquisition gear and a signal infrastructure that ensures our signal is of top quality,” says chief engineer Kit Kawamata. “The video signal makes its way via state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable from our Honolulu studios to the Oceanic cable TV headend located about 20 miles away,” he explains. “From there all five channels are distributed to all cable subscribers on the island of Oahu.”

Becoming a full-fledged producer or broadcast operator takes only about a month of training, but users can get started after just a one-day orientation class. After training, certified Olelo producers are able to check out Sony DSR-PD170 and PD100 DVCAM cameras or a Sony DXC390 camera. Once a shoot is completed, volunteers can perform postproduction and editing on one of several Power Mac G4 computers running Final Cut Pro 4 and iMovie 3 editing software. After shooting in DV and DVCAM, volunteers master their videos to the DVCPRO videotape format. Although the station plans to migrate to digital server-based playback within a few years, for now videos and programming are played back via 20 Panasonic AJ-D230H DVCPRO VTRs. For larger special events, a new ENG remote van with mobile control room and four Sony DSC-D50 cameras is available.

Olelo derives further strength from partnerships. Recently it partnered with Wai’anae High School to work with five elementary schools and develop a video enrichment program. Fifth and sixth grade students from local elementary schools participate in a 13-week program that meets on Saturdays for TV production training sessions. The classes are free and include introductions to TV production, producer training, creating storyboards, scriptwriting, audio production, and camera and editing classes. Experienced interns from Wai’anae High School’s award-winning Searider Productions serve as mentors for the younger students.

“I had the honor of accompanying students to interview our Hawaii state legislators on opening day,” says Marcus Nakamura, second grade teacher at Kamaile Elementary school. “Students worried about having set questions and dialogue responsive to current issues. But [they] were able to initiate responses from elected leaders on diverse issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, and youth concerns. They [as student TV interviewers] asked tough questions, and in the end gained the confidence to engage in real discussion with our legislators. Through video, the students were able to make the connection between government and our daily lives.”

Overall, the image of Olelo TV is a positive one. “There are lots of fundamental Hawaii-changing kinds of activities, and I’m convinced that this [creating independent public television] is one of them,” said Hawaii state senator David Ige.

Not every community is lucky enough to have a resource like Olelo TV, but those who don’t can always tune into Olelo’s programming streamed in realtime on the Internet.

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