UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As conversations about how to stop partisan gerrymandering continue around the country, the work being done by this year’s Brown Democracy Medal winner could not be more timely or more relevant.
The McCourtney Institute for Democracy will award the 2018 Brown Democracy Medal to the Public Mapping Project, an initiative led by Micah Altman, director of research and head of the program on information science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
The Public Mapping Project has developed District Builder, an open-source software redistricting application designed to give the public transparent, accessible and easy-to-use online mapping tools. The goal is for all citizens to have access to the same information that legislators use when drawing congressional maps — and use that data to create maps of their own.
“The technological innovation of online redistricting software and especially open-source system provided ordinary people unprecedented access to the tools and data to create legal districts,” Altman and McDonald wrote in their award-winning submission. “This enables what might otherwise be a static quantification of representation to be embedded in a living, democratic, transparent and participative process.”
McCourtney Institute Director Michael Berkman said the Public Mapping Project plays an important role in helping Americans understand redistricting and advocate for a fairer process moving forward.
“This transparency and involvement is the type of democratic engagement and innovation the Brown medal was designed to recognize,” Berkman said.
Draw the Lines PA, a nonpartisan organization that aims to “fix the bug in the operating system of democracy” in Pennsylvania, is using District Builder in its outreach efforts across the state. David Thornburgh of Draw the Lines PA explained how the Public Mapping project has impacted the organization.
“We are using District Builder as a critical building block for this effort. It gives Pennsylvanians in schools, colleges, community groups, faith congregations, and retirement communities the chance to make their voices heard,” Thornburgh wrote in a reference letter. “District Builder and Draw the Lines give the power of data and technology to the real bosses of democracy: current and future voters.”
The McCourtney Institute awards the Brown Democracy Medal annually to honor the best work being done to advance democracy in the United States and internationally. As part of the award, Altman and McDonald will present a public lecture at University Park this November and record an episode of the Institute's Democracy Works podcast.
The award is named for Larry and Lynne Brown. Lynne Brown graduated from Penn State in 1972 with a degree in education. Larry Brown is a 1971 history graduate and currently chairs the McCourtney Institute’s Board of Visitors.