Governments Open Redistricting to the Public

Software will give citizens a shot at redefining the legislative lines throughout their states.

by / February 23, 2011

New redistricting software will give citizens a shot at redefining the legislative lines throughout their states.

The software, Esri Redistricting, enables state and local governments, advocacy groups and citizens to complete official, regulation-compliant plans and share them directly with specific stakeholders or the public.

Redistricting is the process by which the boundaries of state legislative districts are drawn to reflect population shifts. Each state has its own redistricting standards, and the changes take place every 10 years based on population counts.

“Redistricting with all its data and all its process is one of the more complex applications a state does … from a technical point of view, a cultural point of view and a political point of view,” said Richard Leadbeater, state government industry solutions manager for Esri, a California-based company that provides GIS technology to the private and public sectors. “This software is meant to make [redistricting] approachable by nonprofessionals, for the average competent person to start understanding some of the redistricting laws.”

The system allows a user to quickly create hundreds of redistricting scenarios on a state map based on various census geographies, and also track demographic information that’s important to a state’s plan. Users can create a group that allows only certain users to view the plan, or it can be shared publicly.

As different mapping scenarios are suggested, the program calculates variables to consider and measure, such as the state’s regulations and population targets.

The service is a Web-based platform that is offered as software as a service starting at $4,500 or as a managed service, with discounted rates for two- or three-year sign-ups

For an additional cost, governments can access Esri data sets about lifestyle, demographics and population projection information for a government to start hypothetical mapping scenarios before the census information is released in March.

Alabama is the first state to purchase the software, and employees recently completed training to familiarize themselves with the tools.

“This is an online system, and that’s one of the major reasons we changed,” said Bonnie Shanholtzer, director of the Alabama Legislative Reapportionment Office. The state’s former redistricting system required its own in-house servers. “We’re excited about it; it’s much faster and easy to use,” Shanholtzer said. “I think the legislators will really enjoy it because they will be able to work from their desks.”

Alabama citizens will also be allowed to use the program, but the state’s 22-person redistricting committee has not announced the public use guidelines yet.

Twenty other states and 15 cities and counties are in talks with Esri about using the system, said Leadbeater. A 30-day free trial is available by signing up at Esri’s website.

Until now, the redistricting process has been exclusive, left to a few people who knew how to work complicated systems and were well versed in the extensive rules and regulations.

Now the issue of making redistricting more transparent is of public interest. Leadbeater said he pulls up 40-60 unique tweets per day that mention both the words “redistricting” and “gerrymandering,” and most tweets are negative statements about how government handles the situation or inquiries about how the public can get involved.

Currently states are trying to calculate the logistics of how to review and process citizens’ submitted plans and incorporate the good ideas, Leadbeater said.

“We built this system because we are seeing the value of citizen engagement,” said Leadbeater. “The only way to build an understanding is to get their fingers wet.”

Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.

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