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The Software That Draws the Political Landscape

Maptitude's dominance in the redistricting software market came about nearly by accident. (Photo Courtesy of Caliper Corporation)
Maptitude's dominance in the redistricting software market came about nearly by accident. (Photo Courtesy of Caliper Corporation)

Maptitude for Redistricting may not be a household name, but it is dominant in the niche market of redistricting software and is used to literally shape the political landscape.  

Its client roster features a majority of state legislatures, two national party committees and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, plus the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which was upheld in a Supreme Court decision last month.  

Caliper Corporation President Howard Slavin credited Maptitude for Redistrictring’s dominance in part to its simplicity and effectiveness.  

“You can be productive and it doesn’t require you to be an expert user of the software,” Slavin said. “You have a good product when you know it’s simple enough for a politician to use it.”  

But the software’s dominance in the redistricting market happened almost by accident.  

“We just sort of fell into it, it wasn’t part of any grand plan or scheme,” Slavin said.  

Caliper provides a variety of services, mainly focusing on transportation. In the late 1980s, Slavin said the company saw an opening to sell its mapping services to groups that couldn’t afford the $500,000 to $1 million price tag that redistricting software was selling for at the time.  

The original plan was just to sell the company’s generic mapping software until the company realized “serious redistricters” needed more. Among the earliest customers were the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who wanted to use the software as a way to check against biased redistricting.  

It was such a case that brought the company to the attention of the FBI a decade ago, when Massachusetts Speaker Thomas M. Finneran was being investigated for involvement in a redistricting plan that a three-judge panel called racially biased — and Maptitude was found installed on an aide’s computer.  

“Their question was, ‘Does your software record what users are doing?’” Slavin recalled. “I said, ‘If they did, we wouldn’t sell a single copy. … It’s sort of like, does Microsoft know what people do on Excel? No way.”  

Maptitude for Redistricting is nonpartisan and produces software tools for redistricters. What happens afterward — whether the maps are drawn to protect incumbents or for partisan gain — is up to the user.  

“The complexity in redistricting comes not from the operation of the software but for whoever is doing it, figuring out what their objective is and how to achieve it,” Slavin said.  

At a price tag of around $5,000 to $10,000 a copy, Maptitude for Redistricting is highly customizable, allows for incorporating outside data with census data and has a Web version that allows customers to publicly present plans, Slavin said.  

While it’s likely the most widely used software, Maptitude for Redistricting isn’t the sole redistricting software available. Along with a handful of other providers that include both open-source and paid programs, Esri produces redistricting software used by a number of cities and states including Utah and Alabama according to Richard Leadbeater, Esri’s state government and trade association industry manager.


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