Crayon to Computer Conversion

Citizens of Fairfax County, Va., use GIS to ease the reapportioning process.

by / August 10, 2001
State and local governments across the country are busy preparing to redraw political boundaries to reflect 2000 Census data. It's a crucial process; one that ensures that political districts adequately represent their populations.

Unfortunately, it's also a process that eats up time, energy and manpower.

In Fairfax County, Va., the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) handles reapportionment of the county's supervisor districts. CAC is similar to a slew of other committees and task forces across the country that deal with drawing new district boundaries once every 10 years when a fresh census is completed. CAC's members come from a diverse collection of organizations, including the Federation of Citizens' Associations; Black Women United for Action; the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce; the League of Women Voters; the NAACP; and Fairfax County Republican and Democratic committees. Representatives of the Hispanic, Vietnamese and Korean communities in the county also belong to CAC.

New Tools for the Job
CAC was appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and given the responsibility of presenting a series of alternative boundary plans to the board. When CAC took up this task in 1991, members were given notepads, markers and clear plastic sheets to hand-create maps.

This year, CAC got new toys to use.

The Fairfax County GIS and Mapping Department provided CAC with GIS mapping software to help them pull together data from several different sources in the drawing of the alternative boundary plans. CAC members met in the county's Group Decision Support Center, a war room of sorts outfitted with 33 networked computers and software applications that support everything from strategic planning to focus groups, surveys and budget development.

After a bit of head scratching over how to make the whole process easy for nontechnical types, staff from the department concluded that turning CAC members loose on a PC outfitted with autoBound - an ArcView extension developed by Digital Engineering Corp. that focuses on redistricting/reapportionment - could present problems.

Eventually, GIS and Mapping Department staff created data templates with autoBound that resided on department servers and turned to a freeware product as a user interface.

"AutoBound has a lot of horsepower; frankly, more than we felt citizens could comfortably learn to get involved in this process," said Tom Conry, manager of the GIS branch of the department. "We found out that [Digital Engineering] had an additional tool that they made available at no extra charge called GeoTrack, which works with the files that autoBound creates and gives a fair amount of capability to juggle whatever units you're using."

Conry said his staff worked with several digital data sets, including TIGER files, shape files from the state's Division of Legislative Services and population spreadsheets.

The templates allowed CAC members to start with the current layout of nine supervisor districts.

"The templates were the starting point for doing scenario work," Conry said. "The committee could then move precincts in and out of these magisterial districts to come up with their ultimate plans. They all started with the same template of nine districts. After that, the members moved precincts around within the nine-district scenario. The movement was based on the population statistics to keep the different magisterial districts within 5 percent of each other."

The county has 203 voting precincts, and the templates were designed to let CAC members work with those precincts instead of working with actual census blocks, which are the smallest unit of geography the Census Bureau uses to measure population. Fairfax County has approximately 7,800 census blocks, and attempting to work with that many discrete chunks of population might well have dragged the process past the deadline set by the county Board of Supervisors.

While GeoTrack proved to be an excellent user interface, it did have some limitations, Conry said, noting that the program only allowed a couple of data layers to be brought in. This paucity of data layers meant that CAC members couldn't quite get rid of a pile of paper maps detailing everything from school district boundaries to subdivision layouts when considering new supervisor districts, said Sally Ormsby, chair of CAC and a past board member of the Fairfax County League of Women Voters.

"It would have been very helpful to have had on the map the communities, the streets and all, so you could zoom in and bring up just a precinct or a few precincts and see on the map the subdivisions and communities," she said. "Then, we wouldn't have had to refer to our paper maps. What we had was very useful, but it didn't preclude the need to use other reference materials."

Still, Conry said CAC members easily picked up the program and it successfully presented the changes made to a particular supervisor district graphically when new data was plugged into the templates.

Then and Now
The difference between the current reapportionment process and 1990's process was immediately apparent to Michael Long, senior assistant county attorney, who is responsible for ensuring that the plans conform to Virginia's state constitution.

"We covered an awful lot of ground and got to a level of detail very quickly that we didn't have before when we were dealing with paper maps and crayons. The technology brought us along very quickly, but it also had some problems that we had to be alert to," he said, noting that intergroup discussion is essential to the reapportionment process.

"The whole concept of redistricting is that you're trying to balance population, but, in doing that, you have to keep track of communities of interest. One person's view of valuable communities of interest is not the same as another person's. Getting people to talk about it is a very good way to get to some sort of consensus."

Another problem was the reluctance of some CAC members to use the new tools, Long explained. "

At the end, though, they weren't asking for crayons," he said. "The citizens certainly adopted the technology, and, after the second meeting, they were having fun with it."

Ten years ago, Ormsby said, CAC sent 21 plans comprising 413 pages to the county Board of Supervisors. This year, CAC sent 17 plans comprising only 280 pages to the board.

"The GIS provided a wonderful tool for immediately seeing the result of transferring a precinct from one supervisor district to another," she said.