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Fedflix Popularizes Uncle Sam’s Video Collection

• September 30, 2010 • 12:13 PM

Even with rocket ships and cuddly critters on the screen no one comes to federal movie night. But a privately run effort is flicking open the door to the movie trove.

Carl Malamud has for years been trying to show the government how to do what the government should be doing itself. His nonprofit, Public.Resource.org, has slowly been archiving into the digital domain public resources long inaccessible to the public — SEC filings, court documents, copies of federal regulations. Last week, Google awarded Public.Resource a $2 million grant to build out its latest endeavor, Law.Gov, which aims to put online the country’s primary legal documents for all to see.

But the organization has also methodically been working its way through some livelier fare: video footage from the vast government archives. Malamud cheekily calls that project in government theater, “Fedflix,” a Netflix for the national government. No late fees apply!

His success — and the public’s interest: the YouTube channel where he posts this stuff has gotten 4 million hits — has caught the White House’s attention. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin announced this month that he’s hoping to launch a video.gov platform modeled after Malamud’s.

“Everything we do, that’s our aim,” Malamud said of enticing the government to take over his ideas. “This nonprofit was explicitly started with a goal of getting government to do things in a more fruitful manner. Whenever we do something, it’s with the intent to get government to do it, too.”

Malamud has been working with the National Technical Information Service and several other agencies to unearth the old videos. They send him cassettes and DVDs. He digitizes them at no expense to the government, sends the originals back and uploads the online versions to YouTube and Internet Archive. Public.Resource also has a half-dozen volunteers — the International Amateur Scanning League — digitizing videos at the National Archives and Records Administration reading room in Washington.
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[/class] Until now, the government hasn’t been very good at doing this itself. Fedflix has garnered more traffic than all 13 Smithsonian YouTube channels combined.

“They have the space shuttle and pandas, and they still can’t get more views than we do,” Malamud said. “It’s shocking that government doesn’t have a higher profile with all this wonderful content. With pandas, if you can’t get a hundred million views on YouTube, you’re not trying.”

So what exactly is in all this wonderful content — and who are the 4 million people surfing it on the web?

Well, there are a lot of firefighter training videos from the Bureau of Land Management. There are Federal Aviation Administration safety lectures on surviving an emergency landing. There’s a JFK interview and silent footage from a Civil Rights-era march from Selma to Montgomery.

Most of these videos were made (or funded) by the government, whether for educational or occupational purposes, for posterity or propaganda. They’re either still relevant today (thus, Malamud suspects, the many people who have been watching the Federal Highway Administration channel). But others are simply charming.

“I love a little song about silence, which is on the Mine Health and Safety Administration playlist,” Malamud said, referring to this multitalented noise inspector from Montana, who starts singing (at 3:30) about protecting your ears:

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Among the 4,000 other videos, there’s also this 1943 Disney animation about “Public Enemy No. 1: Anopheles, the Malaria Mosquito.” Wanted, for willful spreading of disease, and theft of working hours!

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“I also like the collections,” Malamud said. “The Federal Judicial Center is interesting. They have several hundred fairly boring videos, things about antitrust jurisdiction, but they were unavailable to anybody except judges, and people who worked in the judiciary. So there was a large community of lawyers that was grateful to see those come up.”

We’ll end, instead, with a World War II Army recruiting clip, now available royalty-free to aspiring documentarians, or just anyone looking to wind down the clock at work:

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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