“When I started doing this in the mid-70s,” Ryder told me, “we were using handheld calculators, paper maps, pencils, and really big erasers. It was pretty primitive.” Even into the beginnings of the digital era, mapmaking was limited by computing power, the incredible burden of data management, the cost of hardware, the unwieldiness of computers, and the use of giant, slow map printers that literally drew maps with big markers. Through most of Ryder’s career, neither party really had the technology, expertise, or investment in redistricting to break open a national advantage.
That began to change in the ‘90s. By the 1990 redistricting cycle, much of the process had gone digital, but it wasn’t very precise. Although expensive minicomputers had already been supplanted by smaller and more powerful machines, they were still the primary platforms for redistricting software, which itself often could cost thousands of dollars. The process relied on massive amounts of Census data—including what are known as TIGER shapefiles that contain the geographic information in play—that were free, but often required expensive manipulation by outside corporations in order to be accessible. On top of the direct costs, the software was cumbersome and prone to error, came with massive manuals, and often required users to directly input long strings of code and commands to even get started.
The Caliper Corporation was a bit player in the mapping software markets then. The startup had almost accidentally come up with a desktop Geographic Information System—or GIS, the kind of software under which most modern mapping programs fall—around 1990, originally intended for use by transportation officials. But it was one of the first mass-market programs that could handle raw TIGER files, which attracted attention among the broader cartographical community. Caliper moved to create a more generalized application from the specialized transportation program and called the resulting desktop GIS software GIS Plus.
It wasn’t long before state officials got wind of the new program, and turned to Caliper and its president Howard Slavin for advice. “We came out with this product kind of in the middle of the 1990 redistricting cycle,” Slavin told me. “And we realized that this GIS Plus product was pretty good for redistricting.”
GIS Plus hit all the marks for savvy officials who wanted an edge in redistricting: It was cheaper than existing programs, ran on desktop computers, could digest Census data products, and required a much less monumental learning curve. It was also critical for outside entities who had no access to the backroom mapmaking processes and giant computers that state officials shelled out thousands of dollars for for a process that only happened once a decade. “It turned out that a whole bunch of people who wanted to become involved in redistricting, but didn’t have the big bucks came to us,” Slavin said. “The NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lots of other minority groups used our product because it worked and it cost about $3,000 instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it was also easier.”