Hey, Wait a Minute | YouTube says Bloomington councilmember Allison Chopra is right: Four hours is way too long for a city council meeting

Note: “Hey, Wait a Minute” is an occasional B Square Beacon series that highlights meeting minutes and other documentation of local government meetings in the Bloomington, Indiana area.

Cropped for Beacon youtube interface Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 1.42.31 PM

Bloomington’s city council meetings are now available on YouTube. That’s a good thing.

But I want more.

I think every local government body in Bloomington should take steps to have the video of their meetings posted on YouTube.

Why?

It’s not because YouTube offers a gadget for making a hyperlink that starts a video at a specific spot. CATS offers a gadget, too. And the syntax is the same—just add &t=N at the end of the URL, where N is the number of seconds from the start of the video.

Meeting videos should be uploaded to YouTube, because YouTube offers an automatic transcription service. YouTube’s automatic service offers two giant benefits: (1) a transcript that can be copy-pasted from YouTube to the text-processing software of your choice; (2) closed captions superimposed on the video itself.

The automatic YouTube transcription is not perfect. In one spot during the June 12, 2019 video, the council president, Dave Rollo’s, “Alright, terrific” got transcribed as “Alright, it’s horrific.”

Maybe YouTube’s transcription was on some level accurate, but that’s not what Rollo said.

The YouTube transcript is still a fantastically easy way to search through a video to find the exact spot you want to watch. You can then make a link to that exact spot for sharing—on Facebook, Twitter, in an email message, or for your online newspaper.

And anyone who wants to make a better version of the transcript can copy-paste the automatically-generated words into an editor, then fix the mistakes or make improvements. (Names are hard for YouTube. And the transcript doesn’t indicate changes in the speaker the way a human transcriptionist would.)

In a better world, government budgets would include allocations for human beings, called certified CART (Communication Access Real-Time) transcriptionists. They would do the transcriptions in real-time as a meeting unfolds. That way, as I get older and my hearing gets less acute, I could sit in a meeting with an iPad on my lap, watching the real-time captioning of the meeting flow across my screen.

For now, I think uploading videos to YouTube for automatic transcription when viewed later is a solid step in the right direction.

What made that step possible?

Part of the reason CATS has uploaded meeting videos to YouTube is based on the contract between the City of Bloomington and Monroe Public Library for CATS services. In early 2018 the two governmental units signed an annual agreement (worth $438,022) that talks about providing “access to meetings through over-the-top video devices (via YouTube for instance).”

The reason given in the CATS contract for uploading to YouTube is “to provide automated transcription of meeting content.” In the contract, the timeframe for deployment is given as 2019 or before.

It sure looks like CATS delivered that bit on time.

The concept of “on time” has posed something of a challenge for Bloomington’s city council—with respect to the length of its meetings.

Councilmember Allison Chopra put it this way at the council’s July 31, 2019 meeting: “…it’s 9:45 p.m. I am leaving this meeting at 10:30, regardless of how long it goes, because I need to sleep at night. … There is absolutely no reason why we should be having a meeting that lasts more than four hours …”

If you review the playlist of city council meetings on YouTube,  you’ll notice that videos lasting longer than four hours don’t (yet) have a transcript.

When The Beacon asked CATS why not, production manager Martin O’Neill said, “It looks like YouTube doesn’t caption programs over four hours so we will need to split those meetings into two parts.”

Maybe it’s a stretch, but it sure seems like YouTube agrees with Allison Chopra: YouTube thinks there is absolutely no reason why the Bloomington city council should be having a meeting that lasts more than four hours.

Reducing meeting length is surely a useful part of making the city council’s work more accessible to the public. So it’s worth noting that the city council’s rules committee is now considering a rule to limit the amount of time that councilmembers can talk. It’s one of several topics the committee wants to address over the coming months.

In recent weeks, it’s not just YouTube transcripts that have made Bloomington’s city council meetings more accessible. Anyone who’s watched the most recent meetings on CATS has probably noticed a frame for an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, inset in the lower right of the screen.

Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 2.10.30 PM

Councilmember Dorothy Granger is credited with leading that effort. In mid-March, she told The Beacon: “ASL will facilitate those in the deaf community to attend the meeting AND make comment AT the meeting! I think this opens up government to more people and is more encouraging of public engagement.”

ASL interpretation of city council meetings takes money, of course, and Granger said in March that funding was in place for interpreters from August through the end of the year as a pilot project.

YouTube transcription and ASL interpreters are great steps forward.

I think it’s important to build on that momentum.

Based on my conversations with Devta Kidd, the city’s director of innovation, and Nicole Bolden, the city clerk, I’m optimistic that we’ll see continued efforts to make public access to the workings of the city council even better.

When I mentioned the search-ability of YouTube transcripts as a benefit, Kidd pointed out that it’s still not possible to search across more than one meeting. That’s something she’d like to see. Kidd said, “I have had some informal conversations with the clerk and her staff about what might be possible using a database, tagging, and artificial intelligence.”

When I touched based with Bolden on that, she confirmed her general receptivity to the use of technology for improvements to records access. That’s not surprising, because Bolden has a history of supporting increased access to city records through technology.

For example, if you want to build a chart with the history of compensation for the city’s local elected officials dating back to 1951, it’s straightforward to get that information. That’s because all the ordinances approved by the city council, including the salary ordinances, are available on the city’s website.

Before I wrap this up, I want to rewind for just a second to the topic of uploading CATS videos to YouTube, to take advantage of automatic transcription.

As I was working through the final draft of this column, I heard back from Shelli Yoder, who’s the president of the Monroe County Council. I’d asked her about having CATS upload county council meeting videos to YouTube.

Here’s what she said: “It absolutely is something we are interested in doing, and the council had asked the council office to coordinate with CATS and our Tech Services to get the ball rolling. …This is a great reminder to pick the ball up and get this project across the finish line.”

That’s the kind of response that will, bit by bit, make local government more accessible to the public. That’s what we all want.

Leave a Reply