Feb 23 2021

Federal Webcams Bring Distant National Treasures to an Enthusiastic Public

Through views of bouncing baby pandas or the wonders of space, technology helps agencies fulfill their educational missions.

In the late afternoon of Aug. 21, 2020, giant panda Mei Xiang went into labor at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

The oldest panda to give birth in the U.S., Mei Xiang had her baby boy at a time when the zoo was limited to only 5,000 visitors a day — about 20 percent capacity — in the midst of a pandemic that nearly eliminated out-of-town ­tourists as guests.

So virtual visitors flooded the zoo’s popular Giant Panda Cam to see the tiny pink baby. On the day little Xiao Qi Ji was born, the number of page views shot up to 400,000, far more than the few thousand streams the zoo tends to see at a time. 

The panda cam is always busy, but with the excitement over the zoo’s first panda birth in five years and access to the zoo limited, the system crashed, showing page errors or failure to load the video stream. The zoo’s IT team had to reset the system several times through the weekend as third-party monitoring systems alerted them to slowdowns.

“We were overloaded,” says Mike Thorpe, the zoo’s web specialist. “We had such a huge increase in traffic.”

It’s a momentous task to keep the 41 webcams in the panda house — among the 150 across the zoo, not all of them viewable by the public — running 24/7. It involves technology upgrades, ample bandwidth and constant pressure because of the unusual environments in which they’re placed.

But the National Zoo and other ­federal agencies that operate livestream camera systems...

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Smithsonian’s National Zoo (pandas); National Park Service (bears); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (eagles)