Software Helps Municipality Redistrict City Council Boundaries

Van Buren, Ark., uses GIS software and database technology that takes factors like population equality and compact shape into consideration for optimal boundary layouts.

by / December 18, 2012

As city populations rise and fall, and shift – trends reflected in U.S. Census Bureau data – municipalities are tasked with redistricting their city council boundaries. And in one Arkansas city,  new software helps with the process.

Redistricting determines how a city’s local school board, city council, state legislative and congressional districts are drawn, according to a report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Current Census data is used to reshape lines and boundaries of electoral districts within a state – a process that impacts all levels of government.

Wes Cleland, the GIS coordinator and IT manager of Van Buren, Ark., a rural city located near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border with a population of less than 23,000, said that to help the city with its City Council redistricting, he first needed to acquire its 2010 Census data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Cleland worked with the University of South Carolina to utilize redistricting software called iRedistrict, which analyzes the Census data and, using a series of features, adjusts boundaries to show several different results based on how the city wants to configure the data.

According to iRedistrict's official website, the software generates redistricting plans through a combination of individual preference and mandatory requirements. When generating new boundaries, the software takes factors such as population equality and compact shape into consideration for optimal layouts.

After making a series of tweaks to create acceptable margins to the software-generated boundaries, Cleland said the margins still didn’t correlate with major terrain features like railroads and highways, but were then adjusted to those correlations. “So we were able to take it and adjust it just slightly to where it matched actual terrain features,” he said.

Before final adjustments were made to the selected redistricting format, Cleland said three different versions were presented to the City Council. Of the three, the Council voted on which layout would work best for the city. 

Once the layout was selected, the final adjustments were added.

Although using the software made redistricting Van Buren a quicker process for Cleland, utilizing the technology for larger cities doesn’t extend the length of time it takes to redistrict new city council boundaries. Cleland said the redistricting process for his city was completed in “record time” only because there were just three layout plans to choose from, as opposed to other cities that may choose to generate more than three layout plans when voting on new redistricting boundaries. 

“It’s all a matter of pushing a button once you have everything programmed correctly.” 

 Photo from Shutterstock

Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.