WEST NEWBURY — With help from state-of-the-art webcasting technology, the Cable Advisory Committee has resolved to make transparency in government and a more informed electorate a top priority in 2010.
Thanks to the efforts of Chairman Jim Teal and committee colleagues Kevin Bowe and Duncan Beech, West Newbury recently became the first community in Massachusetts to launch Granicus, a new webstreaming program that captures, manages, stores and distributes online video recordings — such as local municipal meetings.
The San Francisco-based service is the cornerstone of the cable committee's newly developed West Newbury Community Media Initiative, a plan that will allow residents to view public meetings and other events live on TV from the comfort of their own homes.
Through Granicus, viewers can also instantly replay all or part of a meeting at their convenience through a link on the town's cable Web site, http://thetoWN.tv. With just one click onto a specific section of a searchable agenda for the meeting, the viewer is directly linked to the exact moment in the meeting when discussion on that agenda item took place.
"Now they won't have to sit through a two-hour meeting if they just want to hear about one part," Bowe said.
The service also allows users to search for portions of any meetings in which a particular topic has been discussed, to access meeting minutes and to view copies of any correspondence reviewed during a particular meeting.
The initial plan is to broadcast and webstream the weekly Board of Selectmen's sessions on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., with the hope of making meetings for other boards and committees available live and on-demand on the Web as the initiative's volunteer base grows.
Meetings can be accessed live at their regularly scheduled time on the local cable channels Comcast 9/Verizon FiOS 42. Archived meetings will generally be available for viewing online as early as 10 p.m. the same evening — depending on the length of the meeting — and will be stored for one year.
For its first broadcast, the new media initiative covered a selectmen's meeting on Nov. 18. The committee then worked throughout December to tweak the process and train key town employees on the Granicus system. They aimed to have the final production equipment installed by the end of the month — just in time for the new year.
"We are excited to be able to offer a diverse number of options for our residents to become more informed and engaged with local government and the related issues that affect our town and our school district," Teal said.
But just how much local government will be available to the public in this new format depends directly on the willingness of residents to become involved. Teal, Bowe and Beech spent literally "hundreds of hours" designing the program and getting it up and running. Now about six to eight additional volunteers are needed to help record meetings and other local happenings, Teal said.
The possibilities for programming are limited only by the imagination and willingness of other residents to get involved, he said. The Cable Access Channel currently displays a town bulletin board for any municipal or nonprofit organization to post messages or updates.
But the system is also programmed to allow, for example, a volunteer to digitally tape the high school basketball game, the elementary schools' band jamboree or the Memorial Day parade, and then upload it remotely from home. The goal is for residents to eventually be able to sign out cameras to cover a wide variety of events they believe will be of interest to the community.
Politically minded folks might consider producing a point/counterpoint-type talk show to help educate the public about local issues, upcoming town meeting articles or ballot initiatives. Others might wish to share their talents with the community through a virtual class. Public safety officials could use the system to update the community during local emergencies.
"I think these kinds of things would add a huge amount of value," Teal said.
Because the cable channel is owned by the town, it is not legally allowed to support itself through advertising sales. Instead, it depends on private donations and the small amount of funding for the town stipulated in the current cable contracts — $342 per year from Comcast and $3,200 per quarter, plus $20,000 up front for capital costs, from Verizon. In the past three years, the town has received a total of $42,000 from Verizon. By comparison, Merrimac receives $80,000 per year "plus seed money" from its cable company, Teal said.
But the lack of funds only challenged this committee to find some fun and cost-effective solutions to the town's information technology needs, Teal said. The result is a relatively easy-to-manage, well-integrated system with hopefully enough technological sophistication to pique the interest of the viewing public and inspire them to join the effort to foster more open government and citizen involvement in their community.
"But we can't do it without more volunteers," Teal said.
To learn more about volunteering, contact Kris Pyle in the selectmen's office via e-mail at email@example.com.