For the past decade, the Open Media Foundation has been working to make governments more transparent and accessible to their constituents. On March 2, the Denver-based nonprofit announced a new version of their Open Media Project software at this week’s Accelerate Good Global conference in San Francisco.
When the Open Media Foundation (OMF) was established, “the goal was making sure that low-income communities and nonprofits have a larger voice in shaping public awareness,” explained Tony Shawcross, Executive Director of OMF.
The Open Media Project, a web-based software, is designed to help small governments make their sessions easily accessible. Governments representing 5,000 constituents or fewer can implement the new version of the software, which incorporates platforms like YouTube, entirely for free.
“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for [governments] to leverage the tools and resources that are available to help them reach voters where they’re at, instead of expecting every voter from the county to drive hours to come down to their courthouse,” said Shawcross.
“We felt like media and the commercialization of our communication is, in part, a root cause of the inequity in the rural communities,” continued Shawcross. “It’s a hard problem to solve when we feel like our government is also biased toward the needs of the wealthy and corporations when they vote, so it became a big part of the focus to try and find effective ways to improve low-income and nonprofit organizations’ capacity to influence public policy.”
State governments use tools like Granicus, but the price point of the software alone can automatically exclude smaller local governments, which sometimes struggle to find the funding to make their sessions equally accessible. The Open Media Project offers the first affordable software solution for smaller governments.
The Open Media Project started with the Colorado Channel, a C-SPAN for Coloradans that OMF launched in 2008. The Colorado Channel allows viewers and listeners to access live streams of the Colorado General Assembly and search through archived sessions. Archived video is organized by a speaker using what amounts to a voice fingerprint ID, allowing users to find each instance where their representative spoke, see the bill that they were speaking about, and view the voting records of the representatives in the session. Excerpts can be easily shared on social media.
According to Shawcross, the Colorado State Legislature cut its software costs in half while more than doubling traffic to their site by using OMF’s software.
“We set out to make another version of that software aimed at smaller governments that could be even more cost-effective, and in 2014 we got the City Council of Thornton and a couple other municipal governments to start using the tool as well,” explained Shawcross. “It is these small governments where the public have the greatest opportunity to make an impact.”
“I love the convenience of being able to go back and listen to a specific part of the meeting and be able to get the answers I need immediately,” stated Charlotte Anderson of Pitkin County (population 17,379), another Colorado government using the tools.
The federal election of 2016 resulted in a divided country and strong feelings on both sides of the aisle. The hope is that easy access to government proceedings will offer citizens of all political persuasions a greater opportunity to engage with their local government, playing a larger role in shaping policy or increase their civic participation.
“There are a lot of people who feel like there’s not a whole lot they can do for the next two to four years,” said Shawcross. “Our focus is squarely on state and local governments, where we think people can still have a significant impact. We don’t want people dejected and disengaged from civic engagement and civic life, and we think that encouraging people to be engaged in state and local government is the place to focus right now.”