In a networked world where increasing numbers of citizens have access to broadband Internet and mobile devices, more government officials are examining the potential of video to make the people’s business more transparent to its citizens. Providing video streaming services to the city, state, and federal government market is what San Francisco-based Granicus has been focusing on since its founding in December 1999.
“I believe strongly that public meetings — giving people access to what’s happening, while it’s happening — is critically important to democracy. To me, it’s the data set that pulls everything else together,” said Granicus co-founder and CEO Tom Spengler in an interview. “It’s the rich, emotionally compelling reality of what’s actually going on in government.”
Since ’99, Granicus has helped 800-plus government agencies stream more than 28 million webcasts online. In 2011, their major clients include the city and county of San Francisco, the cities of Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles, the Arkansas Supreme Court, the Illinois and Virginia General Assemblies, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the National Institute of Standards of Technology, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The core of the business is a media and content management application that has a flexible API. The system integrates with the existing technology environment for governments, with additional add-ons as needed. Granicus archives video and records for an unlimited period of time in multiple locations to ensure security and redundancy.
After bootstrapping for the better part of the decade, Granicus raised $10 million in Series A financing from JMI Equity in January 2008. That’s about the amount of reoccurring annual revenue that Granicus had in 2010, with 25% growth expected.
“We came out of our early days with a good focus,” said Spengler. “We decided that we wanted to build a niche: live meeting management and webcasting with public meeting process automation.”
The business model for Granicus has evolved over time, at least with respect to pricing. Instead of taking payment up front, Granicus now bills government customers month to month. The average government agency pays about $10,000 per year for unlimited bandwidth, data maintenance, and services.
Open government video
Granicus has quietly built a sustainable business as a cloud-based platform for government video over the past decade, long before open government gained prominence from the Obama administration’s initiatives in Washington.
Granicus has recently gained a higher profile as the technology provider of HouseLive.gov in the United States Congress. Structuring government video is a key component of what Granicus offers its customers. “Video is a double-edged sword,” said Granicus co-founder and CTO Javier Muniz. “It’s an engaging medium but it’s not very structured.” Governments run the risk that long-form videos will not be much more valuable from an open data standpoint than posting documents as PDFs.
“What our system does, in terms of meta data, is to allow publishing of structured data. If you look at Sunlight [Foundation] with HouseLive and integrated it with RealTime Congress, you start to see where some of the value exists for developers,” said Muniz. Citizens can search the Granicus platform for topics contained within videos and then jump to a specific point in the video file. Clips can also be selected and embedded elsewhere online.
Reached for comment, Sunlight Foundation communications director Gabriela Schneider declined to speak about Granicus specifically, but she affirmed Sunlight’s interest in ensuring that Congress provides access to video of its official work, citing the Open House Project.
Spengler says Granicus is trying to replicate the experience of coming to a town hall in person, but doing it online. “We’ve built a citizen participation suite over the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s a tool that interacts with processes and is integrated into the agenda. The idea is that feedback is given to [governments] before they make their decisions.”
Cloud-first, platform next
Granicus’ growth will come in mobile, integration of geographic information systems (GIS), and a platform strategy, said Muniz. “Originally, we used the cloud because that was the only way that we could deliver on a shoe-string budget,” he said. “if I had to do it over again, we would have built on Amazon EC2. But when we built the platform in 2000, EC2 didn’t exist. We had to invest in our own infrastructure.”
The hybrid cloud architecture that Granicus built is a differentiator when compared with services like uStream or YouTube, said Muniz. An architecture that places edge nodes on-site with customers saves government agencies from having to invest money in bandwidth internally. “You might save on streaming cost but end up paying more elsewhere,” he said. “We provide a system for cities that don’t have technical acumen.”
Granicus originally used Windows Media for its video files, but the company is now converting their entire library to H.264, which Muniz sees as the “clear leader” with respect to a digital video format. While he’s keeping an eye on WebM, Muniz says they can’t afford to be an early adopter. Granicus now offers video in Flash and HTML5-compatible formats.
The company’s platform strategy is at an early stage, but it’s key to continued growth. “We believe we can’t keep up with the pace of innovation by ourselves,” Spengler said. Muniz expects to roll out APIs to allow government customers and civic developers to reach into Granicus’ entire dataset.
“You can extract data or move it from the platform, but we try to offer a ton of value on the platform,” said Muniz. “If we keep value high, and prices low, we believe it will be hard to justify a move. I don’t believe in technology lock in. I believe in value lock in.”