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Amid Protest Over Closed Philadelphia Redistricting Process, Tech Firm Decides to Start Its Own

BY Nick Judd | Friday, August 5 2011

A Philadelphia software company hopes to use technology to pry open a crack in the historically closed-door process of dividing up the city into City Council districts.

Cities and states nationwide are in the final throes of redistricting, the decennial aftermath of the U.S. Census in which the country's political boundaries are redrawn based on shifts of population and, in many cases, the shifting political winds.

In Philadelphia, says government watchdog and open government advocate Zack Stalberg, the City Council had promised draw up districts in a transparent way. Then the council went into summer recess without scheduling any public meetings on the city's electoral maps.

"They adopted a resolution in which they basically said they were going to do it with a sense of openness and transparency," Stalberg, who is president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, told me today. "Then they violated their own resolution."

If the City Council wouldn't host an open process, the Philadelphia-based mapping software company Azavea decided, then it would host its own. Azavea today announced that it is hosting a public competition to find the best possible way to slice up Philadelphia's City Council districts. Powered by the company's redistricting software, called District Builder, the contest has already begun and will last through Aug. 28. Azavea is hosting a launch event next week to show people how to use the web-based software, which is set up at FixPhillyDistricts.com. Using that website, visitors can draw their own district maps and check them to see if they meet standards for population size and density, then enter their plans into the competition.

"We had written a white paper several years ago because we had noticed that the city council's districts are pretty screwed up," Azavea's founder, Robert Cheetham, told me today. "The Philadelphia City Council has two of the worst gerrymandered districts in the country."

How bad is bad? Cheetham says the city's electoral map has council members representing slivers of multiple neighborhoods, and divides the Center City neighborhood into four parts — the better to divide the spoils of an area that's lucrative for political campaigns.

After a cavalcade scorn from the press and groups like the Committee of Seventy — and after Azavea launched its campaign — the council has scheduled a public hearing on redistricting for Aug. 16. This appears to impress no one, as it still leaves little time for public input before an early September deadline. After Sept. 9, the City Council's pay will be held back until they come up with a redistricting plan.

Cheetham hopes that providing a way for everyday citizens to show alternatives to the City Council's plans may, at the least, prove that legislative maps need not be drawn behind closed doors. He says he's got 100 people signed up already for a contest-opening event on Monday.

"I do think there is some power to the ability to show an alternative path, perhaps not in a finger-pointing and adversarial way but to say this process could be a lot more open and here's a way it could potentially work," he told me.

Even that may be too ambitious a goal. Azavea's District Builder software was put to use for a redistricting competition in Virginia, organized by George Mason University professor Michael McDonald and Christopher Newport University professor Quentin Kidd, that produced maps drawn by teams of college students but did not appear to much garner much attention from legislators. The final plan for Virginia's legislative districts passed despite accusations of gerrymandering from Democrats and Republicans alike.

But technology here is as much a tool to bring people together around the issue as it is a tool to build actual maps.

One goal, Cheetham said, is to "encourage them to have a more public process.

"And I think we've already succeeded in doing that."

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