How government can empower citizens in the redistricting process


In January 2011, Michael McDonald and Micah Altman founded the Public Mapping Project and began building the open source platform DistrictBuilder to give citizens more of a say in the redistricting process.

We asked McDonald and Altman to share how the project came to be, its key features and how others can put it to use.

What’s the story behind starting DistrictBuilder

DistrictBuilder allows citizens to draw the boundaries of their communities and generate new redistricting plans via their Web browsers. The software’s engineering and implementation services were provided by Azavea. The Azavea folks deserve a share of the credit — both for the heavy coding and for contributing a portion of the effort pro-bono. Additionally, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation helped to fund the project; their funding helped to make the program a reality.

So far, we’re worked with groups in New York (, Ohio (, Michigan (, Minnesota (, Arizona ( and Philadelphia ( to customize DistrictBuilder. In many cases, states are hosting their own student mapping competitions where the winning maps are sent to the capital for consideration, like in New York where we just announced the winners of the 2012 New York Redistricting Project. At the Public Mapping Project, we’re always interested in speaking to other organizations that may be interested in using the software for their own state initiative.

What are DistrictBuilder’s key features?

The DistrictBuilder software allows users can build their maps on variety of criteria — from a basic level down to a granular one. Specifically, the software pulls data from a few different source: the 2010 US Census (race, age, population and ethnicity), election data (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) and map data (i.e. what the current districts look like). Additionally, these districts can be divided based on county lines, overall competitiveness (Republicans vs. Democrats) as well as voting age.

Recently, we unveiled the winners of the 2012 New York Redistricting Competition at Fordham University. The winning New York Senate and Congressional maps, which were created by a student from George Mason University and a team of students from the University of Buffalo Law School, are being sent to Albany for consideration for adoption by the government.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Since DistrictBuilder is an open-source software, it’s free of charge. The software is freely available and there’s no charge for its use. Plus, the source code is made available under a standard open software license (Apache v.2). This means that anyone is free to modify the software, redistribute it or use it for any purpose, including commercial ones.

Also, the redistricting data that is obtained through DistrictBuilder is free under an open (Creative Commons) license.

The only cost that can come is if an organization wanted to host a redistricting competition, which usually requires professional grade hosting. Some organizations can host the competition in-house on servers, but most require external server hosting.

Luke Fretwell is the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has written about government IT for Federal Computer Week, NextGov, FedScoop, StateScoop and FierceGovernment, and has been referenced by the Washington Post and Fast Company on civic technology issues. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media, including CivicActions, NuCivic and FedScoop and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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