I probably haven’t mentioned before but my ‘day job’ involves working with Local Authorities in order to help them use technology to enhance the democratic process – either by making old processes work online or helping them to create new models of democratic engagement (hence CitizenScape).  The core of this – and our oldest product – is a set of technology to help Councils webcast council meetings.  Now – no one can deny that a three hour council meeting can be a little dull but webcasting it does have some big benefits:

  • It makes the democratic debate entirely transparent and much more accessible
  • It enables people to access the part of the meeting that they are interested in rather than having to sit through the whole thing
  • By tagging content by theme or issue it is possible to create a narrative of discussion that can really help illuminate the observer as to how decisions are made
  • There are lots of other benefits but lets leave it at that for now shall we???

We have been banging on about this for some years now – pre-broadband in fact which is true dedication to the cause – but we have seen a real step change in the last 18 months with online video really taking off and the arrival of the BBC iPlayer making Councils feel that it can’t be all that bad if the BBC are doing it.  In parallel to this we have of course seen huge growth in the use of YouTube and the general appearence of video content on blogs and social networking sites.  And this begs the question for Local Authorities as to what they are going to do about YouTube and other sites – and should their council meeting webcasts appear on it?

As users are increasingly able to grab the section of the video that they want and reproduce it where they want it we are seeing a tension emerge between the Council’s concern about how this content will be percieved if seen out of context and the fact that these are public meetings and the public feels a sense of ownership over the content as much as the Council does.  It also highlights a tension between the a ‘command and control’ view of data ownership and the web 2.0 attitude to content as mobile and reuseable.

This is a general problem for Council’s and their explorations of the social web but I am hoping to use this more specific example to work through some of the issues.  I have promised our user group that I will do a first draft of a discussion paper on this which we can all talk about but the basic principles seem to me to be:

  • The content is in the public realm and there is no stopping it – that ship has sailed and you cannot stop people re-using public meeting content – and nor should you.  Public meetings are after all….public.
  • Context is important – it does not help the democratic debate if people do not have access to the full discussion and its complexities.  Therefore content needs to be made portable in a way which keeps the integrity of the discussion intact – perhaps by chopping content into agenda items for instance and keeping links to explanatory documents
  • There needs to be traceability and the means to draw the viewer back to the formal civic space to react to the  content if they want to.  It would be a shame to get more eyeballs and not use them democratically

More on this at a later date when I write that discussion paper I imagine…..

PS For anyone who is interested I am still working on that pilot questionnaire…..

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