Micah Altman, director of research for MIT Libraries, has been awarded the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest for his work developing software that encourages transparency and public participation in the electoral redistricting process. The award was presented on April 13 at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference of the National Technology Network in Minneapolis, Minn.
The drawing of legislative districts has always been one of the least transparent — and most easily manipulated — steps toward democratic governance. Altman teamed up with Michael McDonald, associate professor at George Mason University, to find a way to break the political insider lockgrip on the electoral mapping process. The initiative the scholars went on to launch, the Public Mapping Project, involved government and nonprofits across the country in an effort to develop redistricting software that any concerned citizen could use.
DistrictBuilder, the software that eventually emerged out of this effort, runs on ordinary web browsers. Anyone with a computer can access DistrictBuilder and use it to both create legislative maps that fairly divide political power, and evaluate the maps that legislators create. DistrictBuilder has already been used to support redistricting efforts in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Virginia and other states.
In addition to being honored by the prize, Altman finds it rewarding to see a new generation of voters involved in the process. "It's been very gratifying to see students use the software to create legal districts and really engage with the political process," Altman says.
The $10,000 cash grant is awarded annually to those who have created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the nonprofit sector and movements for social change. The prize is named after MIT computer science graduate and open source computing advocate, Tony Pizzigati '92, who worked at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science.