Dan Sakamoto

19 Jan 2016

This map comes from a Washington Post article about a program written by Brian Olson to automatically re-draw congressional districts to be optimized for equal population and compactness. Maryland is shown as one of the examples because it is currently the least compact state in the nation. All states are available (in slightly harsher colors than the Washington Post’s version) here: http://bdistricting.com/2010/

I appreciate this map because it represents, and I believe is born from a sentiment that I agree with: that the problem of gerrymandering is out of control. It just feels in this day and age like an antiquated problem, and that there must be a better, fairer way of doing things. My concern with both this map and this sentiment however, is exemplified in the very first paragraph:

Commenter Mitch Beales wrote: “It seems to me that an ‘independent panel’ is about as likely as politicians redistricting themselves out of office. This is the twenty-first century. How hard can it be to create an algorithm to draw legislative districts after each census?” Reader “BobMunck” agreed: “Why do people need to be involved in mapping the districts?”

To which the article immediately responds, “they’re right.” The problem with much of the popular discourse around algorithms is that it assumes they’re fairer and less prone to error, when in fact they encode the biases of the creators. Take for instance the case of the program that assumed anyone with the title ‘doctor’ must be a man. And when algorithms do make mistakes, the biases are at risk of going unchecked because developers will talk about the algorithms in personified terms, therefore allowing themselves to subtly shift the blame. So when people start saying that the problem of people being unfair is now solved because now there’s a program that can do the job, I worry about the level of criticality that’s lacking in the media.