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May 8, 2000 GC-034

Internet services keep viewers at home connected to conference

CLEVELAND (UMNS) -- Digital technology and Internet access are revolutionizing the General Conference experience for delegates, staff and interested church members who want to follow the assembly’s activities from home.

"On the first day, 9,000 people read 25,000 pages on the General Conference Web site," said Susan Peek, director of Internet Services for United Methodist Communications (UMCom). The number has grown since then, surpassing 11,000 one day, she said. A comparable number of users are visiting the United Methodist News Service General Conference site, she added.

What draws Internet users to the site is a mixture of the mundane and the almost-magical: the ability to follow petitions step-by-step through the legislative process and Webcasts that bring the sights and sounds of special events to screens and speakers around the world.

The 2000 General Conference in Cleveland is the third to offer computerized access to petition processing. The 1988 session used computers for internal record-keeping; the 1992 conference offered on-site access to information; and the 1996 session let Internet users track legislation online — but only if they knew the petition number, the subject or the submitter’s name.

"This year, the improvement is ease of use," Peek said. "(UMCom Internet Specialist) Danny Mai created a key word search function after we arrived in Cleveland. Now you don’t need to know the particulars. You can get the information on the legislation on any subject by typing a word or phrase."

Behind that easy access to information is the Petition Entry and Tracking System (PETS), a program developed by John Brawn. The California United Methodist is a network security specialist at Hewlett-Packard and is working for the General Conference as a volunteer this year.

When Brawn saw petition secretary Newell Knudson trying to keep track of 19,000 petitions in 1984, with four people using typewriters to make lists, he suggested using a personal computer to keep the lists in order. Four years later, as assistant petition secretary, Brawn tracked all the petitions on two computers, but he still had to rely on two dozen typists to update text after votes.

In 1992, Brawn created the PETS program and put a computer in each legislative committee room. By the 1996 session in Denver, PETS was available on the Internet for the first time. In Cleveland, a better-integrated system allows recorders to make immediate updates as committees vote, and Web site visitors can follow legislative progress with only a word or two of command.

But the PETS system is aging — it’s almost Jurassic in computer years — and the 2004 General Conference will have a new commercially developed system. "There’s already a contract with a software developer for almost a quarter-million dollars," Brawn said with a chuckle, "to replace a program I gave the church eight years ago."

Beyond a few highly visible issues, many church members are more interested in the celebrations, the preaching and the special events around the General Conference, and Internet technology is making a dramatic difference in how they can experience those events.

"I clicked on the Web site on the second day of the conference," said Steve Downey, UMCom Production and Distribution, who is coordinating the videotaping of the conference. "It was an exciting thing to look at and listen to the opening worship service, and to realize that someone in California or in Manila could be experiencing the same thing. You could read a news report on the worship, and you could read the text of Bishop (Robert) Morgan’s sermon, but now with streaming video, you can also see the dancers and hear the choirs — anywhere."

Mai’s demonstration of the Internet’s audio and video capabilities shows that the technological convergence is remarkable. "People with a reasonably fast modem and a reasonably fast computer can see and hear these files using Windows Media Player," he said. Sound is sharp; the small square in the middle of the monitor looks a bit like an animated expressionist painting, but people and places are recognizable and the overall experience is engaging.

"Mirror" Web sites at UMCom in Nashville, Tenn., the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New York, and the Southeast Jurisdiction headquarters in Lake Junaluska, N.C., allow up to 60 Internet users to view the site simultaneously. "With two agencies and a jurisdiction in a single project, it’s a great example of sharing a network and cooperating to serve the whole church," Mai said.

Besides audio and video clips and versions of entire worship services and special events, the sites provide "actualities" to radio stations for broadcast to non-United Methodist audiences. The files will be archived for at least two years, Mai said. Peek added: "There’s no reason that these must be limited to audio in English. We can do Spanish and Korean language versions as well."

The successful innovations have brought an increase in expectations, Downey said. "Those who were impressed by the ability to find the text of a petition online four years ago now wonder why they can’t watch the worship services in real time. We want to provide every service we possibly can, but the cost goes up every time we add a capability."

The Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, UMCom Information and Consulting Services, said the effort and cost are worthwhile. "In a real way," he said, "we can state that the General Conference is truly a global event because of the Internet."

The Web site is at www.gc2000.org. For best results with streaming audio and video, site visitors should have a 56K baud modem and a 233mHz or faster processor.

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-- Tom Slack

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