April 23, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Looking to better engage the public in Florida's upcoming redistricting process, a recently launched website is aiming to tally those not counted by the U.S. Census and could give officials a road map to create an online redistricting platform.
The site, www.myfloridacensus.gov, went live April 12 and incorporates Microsoft's Azure cloud storage, Silverlight and Bing maps, to create a comprehensive, interactive platform for Floridians to communicate whether they were counted by the Census.
"The biggest result of the website will be more people counted in Florida, and because of that, maybe a congressional seat and more electoral votes for Florida as well as additional federal funding," J. Alex Kelly, chief analyst of the Florida House of Representatives Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning wrote in an e-mail to Government Technology. "This program is the base for a future Web-based redistricting program."
During the last redistricting process -- which is done every 10 years and after states receive official Census results -- the Florida Legislature used desktop software to open the process to citizens, allowing them to submit suggested district maps for the State House, State Senate and Congressional maps, Kelly said. But because citizens who wanted to participate in the redistricting process had to pay $20 a pop for the software, it wasn't quite accessible to everyone because of the cost.
"Practically speaking, we think an online tool will be more likely to increase meaningful and diverse citizen participation than did the desktop software," Kelly wrote. "For the redistricting effort, the Silverlight, Bing maps [and] Azure cloud mash-up gives a unique platform to allow everyone in Florida that is interested in the redistricting process to take part in that process in real time."
The idea came from Florida Rep. Dean Cannon, who wanted a redistricting tool that would open up the process for every Floridian, Kelly said. "He felt a tool was needed to facilitate the viewing of the maps and to solicit real-time public comment," he wrote. In planning such a tool, state officials wanted to test the technology early in the development process, Kelly said.
"At the same time, we became aware that the Census may not count areas where there were new subdivisions, apartments, condos and dorms," he said. "The myfloridacensus.gov website was the perfect opportunity to test the technology and to help with the effort to make sure every Floridian was counted."
The site's basic question -- did the Census count you? -- garnered more than 1,800 individual responses in eight days, Kelly said, of which 287 noted they weren't counted. But there are an estimated 98,000 Floridians in danger of being missed by the Census, Cannon told the Sunshine State News.
That said, the experience using such technologies will better prep the state to host data in the cloud and run the website on any browser. "We gain the experience of hosting 15 GB of data on the Azure cloud website," Kelly wrote. "We will work to build into our system the automatic increase and decrease of resources to handle the different user loads."
And by using Silverlight, the state has secure storage capabilities that will allow it to develop the redistricting solution and have the website run on any browser, Kelly said.
"We plan to use this secure private storage to keep the definition of the user's district plans. This way the user will be the only one with access to their plan until they choose to make their plans public," Kelly wrote.
The Bing maps program also gives the state a "rich environment of maps, aerials, geo-coding and geographic information that we do not have to develop ourselves," he wrote.
"We were able to overlay the Census information on the number of addresses the Census had per Census block with the parcel map and the Bing aerials to allow anyone to compare the Census number with the actual count of houses," Kelly wrote. "With a glance, as we receive more data, we can see the patterns of the Census effort."
While the response rates are off to a slow start, the overall goal of the site's creation is being realized.
"The most valuable result of the www.myfloridacensus.gov website was that it proved that the combination of Silverlight, Bing Maps and the Azure Cloud storage is a viable option to build a redistricting website on, that will be available to the public and meet Florida House leadership goal of making the next redistricting process the most open in Florida's history," Kelly wrote.
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