How Circa Victor designs for big data

Charted Expenditure Patterns in Circa Victor

How do you measure influence, especially when it comes to politics? Turns out, it’s difficult. But there is one thing you can measure that speaks volumes – money. When Jon Lewis and his two co-founders found themselves with free time as projects ended, they decided to join up. They tossed around ideas for what to tackle next and decided on one rule, “We wanted to focus on something that’s not going away and affects nearly everyone,” says Jon. That lead them to government and politics. And this was before the election forced a new emphasis on either. Enter Circa Victor in the fall of 2014.

Circa Victor seeks to give anyone with an interest in politics “the power to monitor every dollar raised and spent in federal elections.” Put simply; it’s “Political spending. Digitally remastered.”

We spoke to Jon, Chief Product Officer, about the power of sharing information, designing for millions of data points, and how the election has affected Circa Victor’s roadmap.

Jon Lewis, Founder & CPO at Circa Victor


What’s the origin of the name, Circa Victor?

It’s Latin for “around victory.” The idea was that if you’re involved in politics, and you’re using Circa Victor’s products, it will lead you down the path to victory.

How does design fit in with Circa Victor’s culture?

As a design founder, I love being able to say that by the way, I can say that design thinking has been used to carry the company. Maybe not every day, but with this particular product, especially at the beginning, if we didn’t look like we could compete, we wouldn’t get a meeting. So from a relationship and communications standpoint, we needed a world class design language from day one. When we started, we focused on the political players that were already in our orbit and what they wanted, but we were also planning for how we could create gravity and attract more of the support that we needed.

How large is the design team there?

Today, I am a one-man army, but I get a lot of support from our engineering team. We’re a big data company, so our organization is very engineering heavy, and we happen to have extremely talented front end engineers. They wouldn’t call themselves designers, but I think they can hang. What I want to do is turn everyone into a designer in some way, regardless of their official title.

The Circa Victor Founding Team

How does the team collaborate?

We’re big Slack users. Our Slack channels are very well-manicured in that there’s a purpose for every channel. There are channels for individual projects, ad hoc channels, specific team channels, etc. When it’s time to explore a new direction we sit down and explore the final product from a very high level, we work backwards from there to fit it into our flight plan. Our flight plans help define our features and requirements, which in turn become roadmaps. In the end, it all comes back to an elegant mix of Slack, Trello, and Github. With anything we’re working on, collaboration is very open and fluid.

Have you guys tried Wake?

We’ve been using Wake since before it officially launched, so we’ve explored all sorts of scenarios with it. Wake is an extraordinary collaboration tool, but at Circa Victor we also use Wake as historical reference for our product evolution. We have an entire history of what we’ve worked on, and anyone in the company can go back and see all the revisions. It’s like a vault. (Check out Jon’s Wake Wednesday posts on Twitter) We can also read the conversations around everything. It’s an invaluable tool when onboarding new people. Wake also helps to bring team members together who would otherwise be separated. For example, a data scientist and the front end engineer working together to explore ways to better visualize the data.

What does the team do differently now than a year ago?

We share information a lot better. Our company has been through an intense battlefield because of the industry we’re in. Last year was heavy for everyone, especially those living and working in the political front lines in DC. We moved here almost exactly a year ago to establish Circa Victor as a tech company that’s seriously committed to building tools for politics and government. It was a culture shock moving to DC from San Francisco (read more about making the move). We moved into a hacker house on Capitol Hill, so we were living and working together every hour of the day. As we brought more people into the company, they were coming into our home everyday to work. It was a hectic time.

Now, a year later and post-election we have an internal library where we share books and knowledge. For example, if I read a book I’ll take notes on it so other team mates can benefit from the same information without having to read the whole book. Building a collective wealth of knowledge has been invaluable. We share it with people outside of the company, too. If we can’t do business with someone right now, but there may be opportunities in the future, it’s a great way to say “we’re thinking about you and studying how we might be able to help.” We’ve built all sorts of interesting connections this way.

We want to be in a space where we’re learning as much as possible as quickly as possible. The team is constantly working to cut through the fog of war in order to answer the hard questions. We’re dedicated to creating systems of communication, and that means being thoughtful about what we’re communicating. We envision an organization that promotes learning and autonomy, while being respectful of the fact that every individual learns things differently. If education is something that is done to you, then learning is something that you do to yourself. Designing environments and products that encourage learning is a vital part of what we do. Knowledge is power.

What did this election year mean for Circa Victor?

We’ve always had a road map to scale across industries. Circa Víctor is a big data company. Campaign finance is a touchy subject; just like most things related to money and government spending. The outcome of this election accelerated our plans. As a tech company, chaos is good for us. We can adapt a lot faster than any competition that may already exist. If we were competing against an older company, they would be struggling to catch up.

Politics is all about relationships and constituencies, so it’s important that we maintain a nonpartisan stance at all times. Occasionally in the world of politics, events unfold that open doors and shine light on opportunities that were previously hidden. This election was the metaphorical equivalent of someone dropping chocolate into our peanut butter – we didn’t expect it to happen, but because the team is so strong, we’re able to make something positive of it.

You deal with literally “millions of data points.” How do you design for that?

To start, we had to recognize that we knew nothing at all. The people we needed to get information from were those doing the research, people who are already exploring the data but in analog, or people who were creating the data points themselves, like the federal election commission. Going out and asking the right questions is always the first step. We constantly search for answers to questions like, “Why does ‘System X’ work this way? Why does ‘Organization Y’ file paperwork differently than ‘Organization Z’? Why don’t Senate campaigns file electronically?” You can speculate all day, but at some point, you’ll always benefit from going straight to the source for information. That’s one of the many reasons that we made the moved to DC. We needed to be closer to the right people. We needed to pull all of their information into one place to understand where the holes existed. Once we got there, we went back to the people that we’d spoken with in the beginning to validate our findings, “Is this solving your problem?” “Does this address the things that keep you up night?” Etc. Read more about how Jon and Circa Victor design for money in politics in a piece he wrote for ModelViewCulture.

When it comes to the displaying big data, that’s a very new journey. Circa Victor is pioneering the space in that respect because the flow of political spending has never been digitized or explored at scale before. It’s not like the stock market or baseball. Some companies are creating their own data points, but we’re the exact opposite. We take ugly data and make it clean and useful, and then we build tools on top of the clean data. It’s very fulfilling when you get it right.

Who are you designing for?

Our clients are anyone with a political opinion and any business that provides a service to the government. Over the course of the last election cycle our client list has run the gamut from leading tech companies like Microsoft (read more about the collaboration), to political party-level committees. As you may have heard, many of the dollar figures and stories that you read about in the media aren’t exactly correct. Having explored the data firsthand, I can safely say that many of these media outlets are starting off with bad data, and that can be dangerous. So we also work with advocacy groups and media organizations who are looking for better tools to understand the flow of money through our political system. The goal is to design solutions that empower all political professionals and journalists to do their jobs better, and with accurate information. Anything less is unacceptable in a modern democracy.

Thanks to Jon Lewis for sharing his insights about design at Circa Victor. You can follow him on Twitter, and get a look at political spending at Circa Victor.