Q&A with CircleVoting.com

I’m really excited about CircleVoting.com, which was released as a public beta last week. Check it out, or read on for a quick introduction to the site, plus a Q+A I did with one of their founders.

Anywhere you live in the US, sorting through all the misinformation during campaign season can be a major chore. Most people just don’t do it. If you live in California, you know this problem is compounded by our extremely messy ballot measure system. Here in San Francisco, I’m facing research on 20+ measures and over a dozen races for public office.

Corporations currently fill this gap, spending immense amounts of money to try to “inform” us on how we should vote. But we have a better source of information: our friends, colleagues, and trusted organizations. If we could summarize all this expertise and see it at a glance, we could make more informed decisions, quickly. Years ago, my friends and I brainstormed ways to do just this and un-break our ballot measure system. We came up with a bunch of ideas and even a prototype, but never finished the job. Happily, this year there’s CircleVoting.com, and they’re making the idea real:

Screenshot of CircleVoting.com's ballot interface

Above is a quick taste of the CircleVoting.com interface. Deciding how to vote on this ballot measure was easy. I can see that a couple of my friends are voting Yes on this measure, along with several organizations I trust. If I click, I can read comments they’ve made and official summaries of the measures. Awesome! Now I can focus my attention of the measures where a lot of people I know disagree. That’s where all the interesting discussion will be.

So, needless to say, I’m into CircleVoting.com. But I wanted to know more about the people behind the site and how it worked, so I got in touch with Jesse Sanford, CircleVoting.com’s CTO.

The team has a great set of complementary skills. How did you all come together to create CircleVoting.com?

Jesse: I met Murray about 2.5 years ago.  I’ve had a couple other projects that attempted to use new media for social change and that’s been a persistent interest of mine.  Meanwhile, I’d also been messing around in IT and web development, at the time as Director of Web Development at Beezwax.  I’d worked on several fairly big-budget sites of a comparable level of complexity to Circle Voting, so I had a good idea it would be possible to do what Murray described.

Is CircleVoting.com currently a labor of love? How do you hope to sustain the site for many election cycles to come?

Jesse: We are set up as a for-profit corporation right now, though we may cross over and reorganize as a 501(c)3 at some point.  Murray [Edelman] is our angel investor.  That said, we’re exploring about a dozen options for a revenue stream.  Verification and more personalized profile pages may be of value to campaigns and public figures.  I also hope to work more with streams and RSS, perhaps moving into the content aggregation space.  After the election I’ll do another round of grant applications and fundraising. Pretty much all the voter education organizations are behind where we are at with social networking, and it would be expensive and risky for them to develop software like ours, so I would think an existing non-profit may also have an interest in taking it on — a modest but constructive exit.

CircleVoting.com doesn’t highlight any privacy concerns around putting our political beliefs online. Shouldn’t we be worried about this very personal information being publicly available?

Jesse: This is a major concern of mine!  Would you please be willing to be a test user on our privacy stuff?  I have it mostly in place but I’m polishing the interface and doing some more testing.  I hope to go live with it this weekend.  In brief, I have developed a three-tier privacy system which will eventually default to “friends only”.  Because I’m testing it on the live site, though, and because we’re really working on expanding our content right now, I think users will have to switch themselves to “Friends Only” after they join.  I’m not sure — I’m likely to explore this with the community over the next few weeks.  Your concerns are essential to address here!

I’ll definitely be a guinea pig. I’ll let my network know how it goes :)

[UPDATE – 10/13: Nice-looking privacy controls are now available, making it possible to set all of your preferences to be Public, Friends-Only, or Private. They default to Public, however, so make sure to go to change your settings if that’s not what you want. This is a flaw of the site, in my opinion. I have my profile set to Friends-Only.]

How are the social graphs that you glean from Facebook and Twitter being used? When I added people to my circle, I was presented with a lot of options, but only a few were friends from my networks. Was that just a coincidence?

Jesse: We’re not using Twitter right now — just haven’t had time — except for login.  On the other hand, we do ask Facebook for your friends and we automatically connect you with any friends who have signed up for Circle Voting.  That’s updated every time you log in.  We are thinking of writing a Facebook friend browser for sending invitations to Circle Voting and maybe some notifications (which you could turn off) when you do something public on Circle Voting.

How can a group become a featured option  on CircleVoting.com?

Jesse: Well, that’s pretty easy right now!  We’re going to show public opinions as a second option below people’s circles — i.e. from anyone in Circle Voting who is fully public in our privacy system; since there isn’t too much content in the site yet, it’s easy to have your stuff set up.  We also have a “default circle” set up to demo the site to anonymous users, which will include some of the best opinion-writers, hopefully in a politically balanced way.  We really want to feature people!  Just ask us for what you need here or let us know your ideas.

When will local ballots be available? I see CA’s on mine, but not San Francisco’s.

Jesse: The San Francisco stuff will be live tomorrow, I hope.

[UPDATE – 10/12: San Francisco measures are now up. They’re moving fast!]

Awesome, Jesse. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Jesse: Thanks for asking such great questions!

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4 Responses to “Q&A with CircleVoting.com”

  1. Beth Says:

    I look forward to trying the app! Before each election I usually end up sitting in a living room with friends, along with our absentee ballots and various organizations’ recommendations, so an easy way to expand that experience to online sounds great.

  2. trotsky Says:

    Facebook is full-on B.S.! I heard you on KPFA (who, btw, has absolutely no right using our donated funds to legitimize (by use) such an abhorrent corporation as Fbook) tell Maldari that this was a sort of meta version of what the SF Bay Guardian has always done.. give a guide as to what various activist groups are advocating as positions on propositions & candidates. But I go to your site and it’s incomprehensible.. a bunch of javascript (which I basically never turn on) which presumably is just pushing people to Fbook. Just put the table of who endorses whom in the friggin HTML already! This whole Web 2.0 crap is just a bunch of marketing gestapoes drooling over the idea of collecting data on peeps & tracking em, to sell to slimeballs down the road.

    Boycott Facebook: http://www.youropenbook.org

    Boycott Adobe! http://playogg.org

  3. trotsky Says:

    Okay I finally got some content from the website, but disgustingly, clicking Show More Candidates (YES, the two megacorporate parties are equally corrupt and need to be voted the hell out.. quit pretending that the Big 2 are plenty and show them all!) yielded NOTHING when the page reloaded. My Noscript extension has been instructed to accept scripts from all that asked except facebook.com (you didnt exactly warn pagesurfers that you’re handing over script control to damned facebook, btw..) .. so does that function for some rediculous reason depend on code hosted from infamous fbook?? Absurd.

  4. ericnguyen Says:

    Oh, man. I hear you on the Facebook front.

    Note that I’m not associated with CircleVoting.com in any way except that I like the idea. Facebook looks like an unfortunate necessity for them simply because their value is not just in showing you large institutional voter guides (e.g. the Guardian) but also the advice of your friends. For that network info, Facebook is the only real source at the moment. With that comes with the need for all the Javascripty goodness. Ideally, an app would be able to stand gracefully without any script, but that’s probably just not possible here.

    I’m Not sure what Adobe has to do with CircleVoting.com, in any case.