Overtaken by IT by not Embracing it (Update)

(Well done to Bawdsey Parish Council who are holding their next meeting by Zoom video conferencing and are inviting emails from Parishioners who wish to join the meeting)

I am a member of a group of people with a common leisure interest. Nothing formal, just a group of friends, albeit large, with a common set of rules and a common purpose. As with most other things, in this strange world, it has been absolutely ‘shafted’ by this virus. Like most leisure pursuits it has waited for the changes which have and are to be implemented which could allow it to continue enjoying its activity. To consider how the group could continue under any relaxation of the regulations I was asked to join a video conferencing call by the organiser to discuss. As I have said the group is reasonably large but all its members were able to join the meeting using a neat bit of software. That however is not the point of this blog; it is the nature of the video call that got me thinking

I have been retired from my work for a while but, before I left, most of our inter-building meetings were either phone conferences or video conferences. At that time, with the available technology, it was a complete pain to arrange either. Video conferences were held in rooms with fixed cameras, large screens and audio facilities and you needed to arrange quite a lot of things in advance. Book the ‘specialist’ rooms in two buildings, arrange to have the appropriate pins and keys (codes) published to the attendees for phone conferences and organizers for video conferences. At the same time you needed to send out the meeting requests and have these accepted by the individuals who needed to attend before you had a good conference. Often you found that key attendees were unavailable so it was a case of getting them to rearrange their diaries or start from square one. Quite different now! The video conference arranged by our leisure pursuit organizer was a breeze. He just sent an email to our email addresses telling us what software to download to our PCs tablets or phones, advising the codes or addresses required and of course the start time and away we went.

So what has changed since I was pulling my hair out trying to arrange video conferencing and I must admit I have not spent a lot of time investigating the key events, and their time ordering, which have created a free video conferencing for an informal group of friends. For some time now small IT devices phones, tablets and laptops have been built with cameras and microphones Some of the cameras on phones are of a quality, with a lot of pixels and the software that allows video capture. Pair that with internet speeds which even in this village can top 80 megabytes on download, and you have very powerful video conferencing tools.

How about the software. What does it cost and what can it do? There are a number of pieces of software that allow this on-line collaboration for friends, enterprises and, of interest to this blog, the types of organisations which are required to have public meetings. A lot of the types of software, but not all, will have a free ‘version’. There will be drawbacks and these will be pushing you to sign up for a price plan. Some will restrict the number of users, the number of times it can be used in a month, the number of administrators etc. I am going to concentrate on the software that was used for the leisure pursuit group which is the ‘Editors Choice’ in my PC magazine.

The question that immediately came to my mind was, if I was running a local organisation constrained in its activities to holding public meetings and acknowledging transparency and freedom of information what would it cost to use this software if any? For the selected software it would depend on how many people you were trying to reach in your meeting. The free version has a time limit of 40 minutes and 100 participants. This is OK for informal groups, like my leisure friends, but not particularly friendly for say a council which is trying to embrace open meetings.

So if you are a organisation with publicly scheduled meetings how many people will you try to reach. 300, 1000? I think if councils at any level were to get 1000 people attending a meeting in a building then it would be like a game of sardines. No body distancing there. So say even for East Suffolk Council, 300 would be a reasonable limit and if you, as an elector, were unable to get in on a ‘first come, first served basis’ (post Covid) then you would need to attend the meeting. Questions would need to be submitted in advance and if your question relied on the element of surprise then you would need to attend. How much would the 300 attendee version cost; 1p off £16 per month! That is around £192 per year which should not be beyond the even the smallest organisation. What will you get for your cash.

  • 300 interactive VC attendees.
  • A dashboard that allow the administrator to;
    • Invite attendees by email using the administrators preferred email app.
    • Mute attendees on entry and un-mute, for example, those who are going to speak in the meeting, e.g. Councillors.
    • Un-mute those, invitees who are required to speak at certain points of the meeting, e.g. question ‘askers’
    • Share other screens, for instance to display other documents for example submitted questions.
  • Allow branding to reflect your organisation.
  • Allow up to 49 thumbnails.

I cannot see any major issues that I believe could not be overcome. I see that this could be a long term way of councils and other organisations, who have to hold public meetings, to hold those meetings to reach a larger sector of the community or electorate and really bring the transparency into the twenty first century. I am not saying it will be a breeze and it will take effort but what a worthwhile thing to do.

I believe this software allows organsations to embrace the IT and transparency for the 21st Century not just now but post crisis as well.