Azavea Atlas

Maps, geography and the web

We Love Data (and you should too)

We love data. The 2010 Census gets us really, really excited. A fresh database drop from a client? We’ll stay late to crack it open and make sense of it. New shapefiles from the UK Ordnance Survey? We’re so there. Often our developers are the ones out front, snagging all the attention by building great location-based software. But behind the scenes we have an amazing team of data specialists who are expert at finding and creating data; building, maintaining, and querying databases; and helping clients visualize and understand patterns in their own data. Great data is at the heart of everything we do.

That’s why Azavea was thrilled to host last week’s DataCampPhilly, a one-day civic data hackathon organized by the folks from Code for America Philly. The day began with a focus on data — specifically, publicly available data. The goal was to use these data to build applications that could make life better for Philadelphians. The teams spent the day tackling several important local problems: improving the way SEPTA schedules are served to the public; making Philadelphia-based spatial data available to wider audiences through a RESTful API; opening Philadelphia City Council legislation to the public through a subscription-based information service; and finding ways to help job-seekers in the Philadelphia region identify job hotspots and possible transportation routes to work.

A DataCampPhilly team crunching data and writing code

Events like DataCampPhilly are tons of fun, but they’re also a terrific way to engage the public and get people excited about the ocean of civic data available to them. The most important part of the event was the diversity of participants. DataCampPhilly wasn’t just for people with mad coding skills. We welcomed into our office journalists, public policy experts, volunteer coordinators, community organizers, and artists, in addition to the usual crowd of developers and analysts. As far as we’re concerned, this is what made the hackathon wildly successful.

We hope this will be the first in a series of civic data events that are open to the public, and we’re excited to be part of the process. Let the hacking continue.

Crunching the Numbers on City Council

This morning the Philadelphia Research Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report comparing Philadelphia City Council to councils in 14 other major cities. The researchers at Pew examined everything from salaries to tenure to “representativeness” to perks. Here’s a brief look at how Philadelphia fared on several key measures.

Who gets paid the most?
L.A. council members top the list with an average salary of $178,789. Philadelphia council members rank 4th with an average salary of $121,107.

Who has been in office the longest?
Philadelphia council members do a great job of holding onto their seats — the average tenure is 15.5 years. Council President Anna Verna recently announced that she will retire after nearly 35 years in office.

Philadelphia City Council members have the longest average tenure of all 15 city councils in the Pew study. This image comes from the interactive graphic that accompanies the report.

Which city does the best job of representing populations that have been underrepresented historically?
Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore (African-Americans), San Antonio (Hispanics), Dallas (women)

Who enjoys the nicest perks?
Philadelphia council members get 12 weeks off in the summer.

Where are the least compact city council districts?
New York-4, Houston-E, Philadelphia-7 & Philadelphia-5 top the list. A low quantitative compactness score can serve as a useful indicator that a particular district shape is irregular. This may point to gerrymandering in a particular district or city.

The Pew authors used Azavea’s Redistricting the Nation website and redistricting white papers to explore different measures of compactness and compactness scores for individual council districts within cities. The report also includes some information about the redistricting process for several cities, including a brief exploration of a proposal to create more transparency and public participation in Philadelphia’s redistricting process.

Tombigbee, USA

It’s tempting to take seriously Neil Freeman’s reimagining of the United States.

Philadelphia, Allegheny, Great Smoky, Lincoln, High Plains, Great Basin, Los Angeles…

Click to enlarge. Credit: Neil Freeman

Click to enlarge. Credit: Neil Freeman

Freeman, an artist and urban planner, reorganized the states into 50 bodies of equal population and presented this new political landscape on his website, He preserved major metropolitan areas and used dominant physical features — rivers, mostly — to name the new geographic units.

The resulting map is logical, thoughtful, and pretty damned faithful to the physical and cultural geography of our nation.

“It’s not serious,” says Freeman, “but people took it seriously.” (As in, you’ll split up Texas over my dead body.) Geographer Stentor Danielson, who blogs about environmental and social issues (with a spatial bent) at, suggests that the lumping together of South Jersey and Philadelphia rings true culturally but would be an environmental disaster. If it weren’t for the state border along the Delaware River, Philadelphia might have sucked the Pine Barrens dry.

“Really, this map is meant to be an ironic look at Electoral College reform,” says Freeman.

Freeman’s map caught a wave of attention when he first posted it to his website after the 2004 presidential election. Earlier this year it was picked up again by several political bloggers, including James Fallows and Matthew Yglesias. (Fallows invites his readers to imagine a decennial redistricting of the states to reflect changes in population: “In a reapportioned Senate each of of these units would have two votes.”)

Freeman followed a few simple rules:
1. Keep populations equal (Freeman’s states range from 5.4 to 5.6 million people, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. Actual state populations range from ~500 thousand to ~33 million)
2. Place major cities and close-in suburbs in a single state
3. When possible, follow existing state and county boundaries
4. Keep river valleys intact

“I used rivers as a guide for picking names,” he says. Turns out, this strategy makes a lot of sense. Freeman recently read ‘Names on the Land,’ an historical account of place-naming by George Stewart. “I think I was unconsciously following the names he gives in the book.”

Check out some of the Freeman’s other projects over at FakeIsTheNewReal, including my favorites:
Brooklyn Typology — linking photographs and data “to form a portrait of the urban fabric of Brooklyn”
Subways at Scale — aspatial maps of urban subways
Chicago Mile by Mile — photographing Chicago’s street grid

Redistricting Top 10: CA-23 (1)

You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed.

              –Rufus Wainwright

California’s 23rd Congressional District is at the very top of our Top Ten list!

CA-23—a long, skinny strip of land along California’s central coast—is a product of the state legislature’s latest bi-partisan gerrymander. Several California representatives have admitted that the post-2000 Census redistricting effort was an “incumbent retention plan” for both political parties. CA-23 is in good company; the district joins CA-15(#12), CA-53 (#13), CA-38 (#15), and CA-7 (#18) at the top of our least compact Congressional District list, making California a true “wonder” when it comes to gerrymandering.

California's 23rd Congressional District: The least compact U.S. House District

California's 23rd congressional district: The least compact U.S. House District

Hope (and a reason to get out of bed) is in sight. In November 2008, Californians narrowly passed Proposition 11—an amendment to the state constitution that places the authority to draw state-level district boundaries in the hands of an independent, 14-member commission.  The task of redrawing Congressional districts was not part of Proposition 11, though a Congressional Redistricting Initiative may be added to the November 2010 ballot, just in time for the post-2010 Census redistricting process.

And with that we officially launch Redistricting the Nation!

Redistricting Top 10: FL-22 (2)

The Sunshine State makes a second appearance on our Top Ten list with FL-22—a classic example of an incumbent gerrymander. Florida’s 22nd Congressional District starts its beach crawl in Jupiter and ends in a flourish around Fort Lauderdale (without including much of the city proper). Republican redistricters handcrafted FL-22 after the 2000 Census by removing a heavily Democratic section of Miami-Dade County and extending the district boundaries further into Palm Beach County. Their goal was to provide a safe seat for Republican Clay Shaw, who was soundly re-elected in 2002 and 2004, serving a total of 13 terms in office. Democrat Ron Klein later defeated Shaw in the 2006 election.

Florida's 22nd Congressional District: The 2nd least compact U.S. House District

Florida's 22nd Congressional District: The 2nd least compact U.S. House District

Tomorrow morning we’ll unveil the #1 least compact congressional district before launching our hotly-anticipated Redistricting the Nation site. Stay tuned!