Cray “Blue Waters” Supercomputer Tackles Gerrymandering

Yan Liu and Wendy K. Tam Cho

Redistricting — the process by which congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn — sounds like an unremarkable government chore. And, in theory, it should be. But, too often, it is subject to “gerrymandering,” or manipulation, by the majority political party.

Decades ago, University of Illinois political science professor Wendy K. Tam Cho (pictured above) realized that what’s needed is a computational tool that would help the courts objectively measure the fairness of a legislative map. She developed a tool that could generate hundreds of millions of voter district maps that would serve as a “comparison set” — a way to measure the level of partisanship exhibited by any particular electoral map. But any further work was stymied by the lack of compute power.

Then she heard about the “Blue Waters” supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Blue Waters is a Cray® XE/XK hybrid supercomputer with 13 PF peak performance and 1.6 PB of system memory. The barriers to progress fell away.

Today, Cho and her research assistant, Yan Liu (pictured with Cho), are using Blue Waters to bring her idea to life. “We’ve created a tool that quantifies, synthesizes and analyzes massive amounts of redistricting data, both to engage a broader array of interested stakeholders as well as to provide a tool for judges to use in adjudicating gerrymandering claims,” Cho says.

The aim isn’t to end up with one perfectly objective legislative map. Instead, it’s to bring transparency to the redistricting process that can come only from generating and scrutinizing billions upon billions of legally viable electoral districts.

The next redistricting is in 2020, and Cho and Liu are hoping their project will enable improvements in the country’s democratic process.

Cho’s story is one of many examples of Cray users doing amazing work that affects people every day. You can read more about her work here.

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