Web pioneer urges House to upgrade video quality

The House must update the quality of committee-hearing videos and make them readily available on the Web, an Internet pioneer recently told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“By the end of the 110th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives could achieve the goal of providing broadcast-quality video of all hearings and the floor for download on the Internet,” wrote Carl Malamud in a letter to Pelosi dated March 13. Malamud is well known for developing the first Internet radio station, putting the Securities and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR database online and creating the Internet 1996 World Exposition.

Pelosi has vowed to make government more accessible by putting all committee hearings online.

Fourteen committees are already streaming live video proceedings of hearings.

But Malamud said the video currently available is of poor quality. Furthermore, he argued, Congress should provide an archive of the committee hearings so that the media alone cannot decide what content to provide to the public.

“On any given day, there may be dozens [of] simultaneous hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives … it is unlikely that the media would choose to provide a comprehensive video record of all hearings,” Malamud wrote.

The Speaker’s Office seemed to agree with Malamud’s assertions. The House Administration Committee did not comment by press time.

“Speaker Pelosi is committed to pursuing innovative avenues that increase citizen participation and transparency,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. “Many committees are already on track to provide broadcast-quality hearing videos, and we are in the process of evaluating this request. We look forward to meeting this challenge.”

Daly added that he recently spoke to Malamud and that the Speaker’s Office shares the same goal of increasing transparency. However, it is working through some “technical issues.”

Although it is difficult to wire rooms in the House Office buildings, Malamud said, the technical kinks can be worked out.
“I understand how difficult it is to wire these historic facilities,” Malamud wrote. “I have absolutely no doubt that it is technically and financially feasible.”

Malamud said that he has worked with many Gallery staff members, the technical staff of Verizon, Switch and Data, Equinix, and institutions that have large network presences. At the current pace, he said, every committee room should have cameras in the next two years.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee currently make hearing videos “easily available for download.” Other committees that have videos are streaming them. That causes problems because, as Malamud pointed out, “Most people don’t know how to stream [video] and use it.”

In late February, Malamud began ripping the webcast streams, transcoding the data and uploading the hearings on an Internet video archive and Google Video. Over a two-week period, he converted and uploaded 63 hearings.

Ripping the committee webcasts allowed Malamud to analyze the quality of the videos, which he said is “awful. Any kid on YouTube could do better.”

Some of the videos provide a picture of 160 by 120 pixels at 10 frames per second, which “is significantly worse than that which I used in 1993 when I was doing some of the first webcasts on the Internet,” Malamud wrote to Pelosi.
“It’s hard not to do better. All they have to do is turn up the size,” Malamud told The Hill.

He said that “broadcast” quality is achievable. He defined that as 640 by 480 pixels, which is a much bigger picture than what is currently used.

Malamud wrote in his letter that Bruce James, public printer of the Government Printing Office, was also “very supportive of the concept of ‘live and permanently archived video from Congressional and Executive branch public proceedings on the Internet.’”

“If a hearing is to be considered truly public, the public has to be able to see it, both now and forever,” Malamud wrote.
“The onus is now on Congress” to create its own archive, Malamud told The Hill. “Several members have been monitoring this and scratching their heads. It’s sort of Greek in Washington, [but] it means a lot to us on the Internet.”