As Americans head to the polls, few will give much thought to how their voting district was created, and almost none will have had any direct input in defining its boundaries. Voting districts are often created and adjusted in a highly politicized process with little voter involvement. A software program known as DistrictBuilder hopes to change that by making the redistricting process more open and collaborative.
The open source software developed by the Public Mapping Project, with software engineering by Azavea, a geospatial analysis company, won the “Data for Social Impact” Award at last week’s 2012 Strata Data Innovation Awards.
“The drawing of electoral districts has been among the most easily manipulated and least transparent systems in democratic governance,” said Dr. Micah Altman, MIT Libraries’ Director of Research and a principal investigator with the project. “DistrictBuilder has demonstrated that the thoughtful application of information technology and open data can promote public commentary and discussion about redistricting; inform legislators, redistricting authorities, and courts as to the range of possible plans; can signal public preferences over redistricting plans; and can educate the public about the electoral process.”
DistrictBuilder has already been used to support redistricting efforts in the states of Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Virginia and others. And in Philadelphia it was used for the first citywide redistricting contest, “Fix Philly Districts.” The public’s participation in these efforts reveals that average citizens are invested in the redistricting process and are willing to spend time drawing high quality plans using the online resource.
The software allows users to create and edit district plans, display demographics and election data, and show additional reference map layers, like school districts and administrative boundaries, among other features.
Altman and co-principal investigator, Dr. Michael McDonald from George Mason University, set out to encourage civic engagement in redistricting efforts, and demonstrate that a non-partisan and open, public process based upon objective criteria can produce fair, legal legislative districts.
“We are optimistic that the continuing effort to make redistricting more transparent and participative will create, over time, a ‘market’ for plans that support political fairness and community representational goals,” Altman said.