In 1991, computer scientists at the University of Cambridge pointed a camera at a coffee machine and programmed it to broadcast images of the pot levels to anyone in their building with a need for caffeine. With that, webcams and live-streaming were born, and now we live in an age of webcasting in college classrooms, teleconferencing and telepresences in the work place, and social lives and media experiences enhanced by services like Google Hangouts and Twitter Periscope.
Despite all those advancements in the commercial, industrial, and academic sectors, our local governments still lag far behind contemporary Internet trends. Sure, many city councils now live-stream their sessions, but the feeds are limited and almost always one-way modes of civic engagement.
That’s why EFF endorses the “Sunshine and Open Government Act of 2015,” also known as “Proposition E,” a local ballot measure that San Franciscans will vote on this November. This citizen-driven initiative is simultaneously practical and radical, and we hope that, if it passes, it will help raises the bar across the country. Not only does it increase the number of live-streamed government meetings, it creates all new ways for members of the public to present video comment during these sessions.
Let’s take you through the measure:
- All meetings of San Francisco boards and commissions would be broadcast live over the Internet, not just the meetings that occur in the couple of rooms currently capable of broadcasting.
- Members of the public would be able to submit video testimony in advance, which would be played during these meetings. Even more innovative: San Franciscans would be able to testify live through remote video from their homes. The measure also has provisions for translating testimony into languages other than English.
- Members of the public would be able to request that an item up for discussion be scheduled at a predetermined time so that they know exactly when to show up or tune in.
The initiative does not attempt to dictate exactly what technologies must be deployed, instead granting government officials the ability to figure out the logistics. With a two-thirds majority, the board of supervisors can also adjust the ambitious goal posts if they encounter difficult technical hurdles.
Public comment is a crucial element in local democracies, since it is one of the chief ways for residents to air their grievances, propose their ideas, and give feedback to their elected leaders. But too often these public comment periods do not represent a wide variety of perspectives, since they’re biased in favor of a specific demographic: people who have the ability to travel to city hall to attend often inconveniently scheduled meetings. This cuts out a lot of people who work long hours or need to stay at home to take care of their families. As a result, many hearings have little or no public attendance at all, except for reporters and retirees. That’s no slight to senior citizens; they are often the best watchdogs. It’s just that they shouldn’t be the only ones.
As an organization that relies on digital tools to enhance grassroots activism, we see Proposition E as a way to leverage the innovation of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area to pioneer a system that can be exported elsewhere.
We’re encouraging our fellow San Franciscans to go to the polls this November to cast a vote for transparency.
For more information on the measure visit: http://www.sfopengovernment.com/