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Yes Virginia, There Is a Webcast

In its first-ever ranking of the business-friendly climate of each of the United States, Forbes recently christened Virginia as the best state in which to do business. At the Commonwealth of Virginia Innovative Technology Symposium (COVITS) 2006 in Roanoke, Virginia, on September 12, Governor Tim Kaine said that technologies such as streaming media will play a large role in Virginia maintaining its edge.

"We were assessed in 30 categories and six broad topic areas, such as tax and regulatory policy, current economic climate, potential future growth, quality of life, and education," said Kaine during his speech. "According to Forbes, we were the only state to rank in the top 10 in each of these categories. Our diversification and breadth of multiple sectors helped balance boom-bust scenario, especially diversification in the technology sector—moving beyond just IT to also include educational and business focus on bio- and nanotechnologies."

COVITS has been held as a yearly symposium for the last eight years, but according to Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra, it is now being used as an integral part of Virginia’s strategic planning process for technology-related efforts by the state (actually, it’s a commonwealth, as its residents are quick to point out) to draw rural communities into a technology-driven economy and to use technology to improve working conditions in congested areas such as the Fairfax/Washington, DC area and Hampton Roads.

Kaine signed Executive Order 35, which created an Office of Telework and Broadband Deployment, naming Karen Jackson, formerly VP of broadband deployment for the Center for Innovative Technologies, as the new office’s first executive director. "We have to balance the benefits of technology between the needs of large metro areas like Fairfax with smaller, challenged areas like Galax," said the governor.

"Virginia—like many other states—has two distinct economies," said Senator William Wampler, who represents Bristol and several other areas of the state’s rural southwestern corner. "Efforts to roll out broadband in the rural areas around Bristol can be thought of as a lifeline, no different than the efforts to electrify the Tennessee Valley and the South during the 1920s."

"Broadband deployment by itself isn’t enough," added Jackson. "We need to use this broadband deployment to allow those in rural communities looking for work to link to those in metropolitan areas who are looking for workers in jobs that may not require a physical presence."

"We understand the challenges of outsourcing," said Kaine when asked whether telework might lead to more jobs going abroad. "But we see two benefits that telework provides—a critical limitation of the congestion northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads areas face as well as a way for Virginia businesses to realize that they can insource jobs to other parts of the state that have been—until now—harder to communicate with than broadband-equipped foreign outsourcing companies. We think this initiative to roll out broadband in our rural areas will actually accelerate insourcing rather than outsourcing."

To meet these joint goals of telework and broadband deployment, Virginia has set a goal of 20% of the state workforce using telework or alternate work schedules by the year 2010. The Virginia average currently hovers around 3%.

Jackson sees streaming media as a large piece of the puzzle that allows co-workers and managers to stay in contact with one another during the workday. She also expects that several telework models will emerge, rather than just one being dominant.

"We have examples of clinical coders, those who read and enter data from clinical charts, working remotely," says Jackson. "But until the time they reach a certain certification level, these clinical coders are required to have supervision. In this instance, streaming media could be used both to link remote offices across the state—which might contain 20 to 30 clinical coders and a supervisor—with one another as well as with those who, having achieved a certification level, choose to work at home on their own."

Two other challenges are shifting work hours while maintaining critical state services, as well as privacy issues regarding data on remote workers’ laptops or desktop. Jackson is confident, though, that technological advances in streaming media will overcome the latter problem.

COVITS attendees also explored several other areas where streaming media has been deployed for citizens of the commonwealth. Representatives from the Virginia Department of Transportation showcased how streaming media is used to allow the public to view real-time road conditions along their local commutes. The program, launched in northern Virginia, has been popular enough that additional systems in Richmond, the state capital, and the Virginia Beach area are also being rolled out this year.

Representatives from the City of Alexandria also discussed how streaming media is used to allow those unable to attend meetings to stay informed on current topics. "We use streaming media to deliver our planning meetings and other meetings of interest to the general public," says Craig Fifer, E-government manager for the City of Alexandria. "We not only stream the video of the meetings, but we also use a system that links the video to agenda points and automatically generates MP3 files for podcasting, so that those who later view or listen to content can easily find the areas they are most interested in."

"We don’t see podcasting or streaming media as something that we’re forcing the general public to use," Fifer adds, "but the demand for these methods of communication has been significant enough that we felt the services were justified if we could find a way to easily repurpose content we were already required by law to capture into more user-accessible on-demand formats. We’re happy to let attendees know that these efforts have met with extremely positive response from the general public."

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