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Utah Legislature computer system glitches brings howls

Published January 27, 2012 10:20 pm

Critics say it is making government harder to access, less transparent.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah Legislature enjoyed a smooth, quiet first week — except for one thing that has lobbyists, reporters, activists, the public and even lawmakers themselves howling.

The Legislature's new system for online live-streaming of its meetings has not been working. Many people need it to track multiple meetings that happen at the same time during the Legislature's tightly packed 45-day session — or to watch sessions while away from the Capitol.

But those using the Capitol's wireless Wi-Fi Internet connection for computers could not get any video or audio for several days. Those who managed to get some said it would often freeze, or disappear, or go back in time to minutes before what was actually happening in meetings.

Archived audio of completed sessions often would not work. Online schedules would sometimes falsely indicate some committees were canceled when they really were not. The Senate's session Thursday did not stream at all.

After that, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, told reporters, "I've given them the ultimatum to have it [the system] up and running by Monday or else."

He added, "We've had huge [amounts of] emails of complaint, actually, from people who said the old system was so much better that they prefer to go back to it if we can't make it work."

Judi Hillman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, said she was at a lunch with other veteran activists "and all I heard was complaint after complaint about the system, and how no one could get it to work. And if veteran people with years of experience at the Legislature couldn't get it to work, I can only imagine what it is like for the public."

She said it is not just an annoyance, it is a matter of good government — and it hurts transparency and public involvement. "I miss the old system," Hillman said.

In fact, that old system and the Legislature's website, le.utah.gov, had won national awards. But Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Senate chairman of the Information Technology Steering Committee, said the old system used technology that was several years out of date and would not work with iPads and other new devices. So the Legislature sought to update it with a top-of-the-line streaming system.

The winning bidder was Granicus, which provides online streaming for the U.S. House of Representatives. "We heard rave reviews about it from other legislative bodies," Bramble said.

But Senate Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell said "the gears have not meshed well" between the old locally designed system and the new outside one. Cantrell said it had been tested before the session, "but apparently not enough."

And at the same time the Legislature added that system, it also added other new systems for email, the Senate voting system and member cellphones — "and we've had issues with each of them," Bramble said.

Cantrell added, "In hindsight, we should have added only one at a time."

"Our staff has been working to the point of exhaustion" trying to get systems to work, Cantrell said. "Some are nearly in tears."

He said one problem was discovered with the Wi-Fi system for computer users on Capitol Hill. Cantrell said legislative staff found operators of that system were filtering "outside video streaming on the bureaucratic paranoia that somebody would watch a video [online] on Netflix and crash the system" by using too much of its broadband capacity.

That filtering also happened to stop the Granicus feed of legislative meetings for three days until the problem was found.

Bramble said legislative leaders, staff and vendors had a meeting Friday afternoon to "give clear expectation for what needs to be done as soon as technologically possible." He said some vendors are flying in extra people to help troubleshoot. "I believe our staff will be working very long hours between now and when we gavel down on Monday."

On Friday, the Legislature also added a hotline for people to call for help — 801-708-5300. Cantrell said staff would try to help users solve problems, whether it is with their computer or the state's system.

Bramble said he believes the new system will eventually be better than the old one once bugs are resolved. When asked if there is any chance of going back to the old system, he said, "I don't think that is possible now." —

Hotline

The Legislature has set up a hotline for people to call if they are having trouble with its online streaming of meetings > 801-708-5300.