GIS helps redraw districts

Virginia's Fairfax County is using geographic information systems to tackle

its post-census mandate to realign its district boundaries.

Residents appointed to the Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) on the Reapportionment

of Fairfax County used newly developed Digital Engineering Corp.'s GeoTrack software to help them draft recommendations to the County Board of Supervisors.

"We took 2000 census data and basically ran it through GIS software,"

said Tom Conry, GIS manager for the Fairfax County Department of Information

Technology. "We provided the citizens with two layers of data: the voting

precincts and supervisor districts. And with all 203 precincts superimposed

on a detailed county map on the computer, they could go through the assigning

process. If someone wanted to move a precinct, you would see within seconds

the effects on the redistricting. You could see if you were creating any

anomalies, and print the whole thing out in color to see final results."

Conry said that late-arriving census data and upcoming elections created

tight time constraints for the CAC, which just 10 years ago relied on printed

maps, crayons and an old-fashioned editorial process to draft recommendations

to the board.

"It saved a lot of time," said County Attorney Michael Long, who worked

with the CAC during the last redistricting in 1991. "The group in "91 came

up with 21 different plans. This time we came up with 17 plans, but the

process was finished in three or four weeks less, and with better results

because citizens were able to consider so many more scenarios and get results

back instantaneously."

Fairfax County is among the first in the country to use this type of

technology to reapportion local government districts. Virginia law requires

its counties to redistrict based on numbers from the Census Bureau, released

earlier this year. The Board of Supervisors makes the final decision. In

this case, the supervisors ended up adopting the citizen group's recommendation

with a few changes.

"Traditionally redistricting has been such a backroom process," Long

said, "but this technology has really allowed citizens to see the complexity

involved in redistricting through getting involved. And in this case, government

as well ultimately benefits from that citizen input."

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