Streaming media opens Wisconsin legislature

Streaming media is doing for the Wisconsin State Assembly what C-Span did for the U.S. Congress: letting constituents see the floor debates and votes on bills and potential laws that are important to them.

For the past 2 1/2 years, the Assembly has been streaming audio versions of its debates over the Internet. In January, the legislative body added video, allowing viewers to see as well as hear what was happening on the Assembly floor. The Assembly takes the C-Span concept one step further by letting viewers see all the documents pertinent to the debate as they watch the video.

"We've made all the distributions in the Assembly digital, so when members get them, you can get them over the Web," says Steve Baas, the press secretary for Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. "It's like having a virtual seat on the Assembly floor, complete with everything but the voting button."

Baas said the Assembly had been using the same system of paper and human couriers since the state was established 150 years ago." [The old way] was expensive and wasteful, and the speaker thought some of this technology stuff could help internally and open up the process externally to the general public in ways that would have been unimaginable eight to 10 years ago," Baas says.

"The speaker worried about the cost of the technology, but we bought a three-camera system with mixer and servers for US$22,000," says Mark Wahl, director of the state's legislative technology services bureau. Plus, the legislature is saving $100,000 over two years by going paperless.

To fund the purchase, the legislature's appropriations committee had to approve the expense. The debate was split not by Republicans vs. Democrats, but more "techies vs. nontechies," Baas says.

Now instead of passing out paper to all 99 Assembly members, each carries a laptop to view all documents related to the bill being debated. A Web server pushes documents out to the public, while three video cameras (one unmanned and two manned) capture the action on the floor. A video mixer coordinates the shots, and the resulting video is encoded into Windows Media format using a Dell Pentium III 420 workstation running Windows 2000.

Originally, the debates were streamed in the RealAudio format, but the initial 30-simultaneous-user license for the server quickly maxed out, Wahl says. Windows Media does not charge on a per-user basis, making it a cheaper alternative than RealAudio, which charges based on the number of simultaneous users. (RealAudio is still offered, but is limited to 30 simultaneous listeners - the original license purchased.)Wahl's group hosts all the streaming itself using a Compaq Pentium III 550 Server for unicast broadcasts to the Internet and an Omnitech Pentium III 450 server for multicast broadcasts on the internal network. Both servers are running Windows 2000. The two main Cisco 5500 routers are multicast-enabled. Viewers online get video served at about 100K bit/sec and 12 to 15 frames per second.

About 100 to 150 people is the average viewing audience for most debates, but when the Green Bay football stadium bill (a plan to renovate the Packer's famous home, Lambeau Field) was debated early last year, 2,000 to 2,500 tuned in. "We get more correspondence in this office that says the constituent was watching on the Web or saw this on our Web site. It's really helped open the government," Baas says.

The next step is to create a video archive of the debates, so viewers can tune in after the fact. "It makes things more accessible from a time standpoint," Wahl says.

Wisconsin State Assembly:

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