Today is the one-month anniversary of the Obamacare health exchanges, and while it has not been a smooth rollout, the exchanges are already helping a million citizens sign up for private coverage, who represent about 2 million Americans in those plans. Millions more are signing up for the Medicaid expansion.
Clearly the federal government and states were not prepared for the overwhelming demand for affordable health care. Whether a flood of customers, which reveals underlying issues, is a success, failure, or somewhere in between greatly depends on your point of view.
For instance, Capital Bikeshare — DC’s system of shared bicycles and stations — is highly regarded even though it’s struggling to meet the demand. I recently moved to a location where bikeshare made sense, so I bought a membership. Unfortunately, there is never a bike available in the morning when I want to leave my house (and I’m notalone). My solution is to work from home until an app tells me a bike is finally available. These “headaches” are comparable to users having to sign up on Obamacare late at night when few users are hitting the system.
Of course, the comparison isn’t perfect. Capital bikeshare didn’t have to serve bikes region-wide starting on October 1st. And Obamacare’s failures go beyond a tsunami of demand. That said, it’s a fine line between the success of Capital Bikeshare and the glitches of Obamacare.
My girlfriend and I recently returned from a three-week South African vacation, throughout which we had many fantastic experiences (e.g., sleeping here and here). By leaps and bounds, the most rewarding experience was volunteering teaching at the Teboho Trust school in Soweto. As background, Soweto is the area of Johannesburg where black Africans were exiled by the Apartheid governments of South Africa. As you might expect given that history, Soweto is beset with extreme poverty. The tuition for the Saturday Academy that we volunteered in was 1 South African Rand, or about 10 cents per day. Teboho realizes that even this minuscule amount is a hardship for many families (indeed, most students in my class did not have the one Rand to pay), and thus the school allows kids to sign up tuition-free if their parents volunteer in some capacity.
At 8:30am, all the students gathered in a large classroom for morning assembly. Capturing the attention of 120 kids whose ages range from 5 to 15 is hard under any circumstances. But this task was compounded by the fact that this particular morning was a cold (winter) August morning, with the wind whipping through the broken windows and chilling our bodies. (Certainly there was no central air.) To compensate, a few leaders led the group in song and dance to warm our blood. And, amazingly, everyone joined in, ignoring the external hardships and focusing on the community of people around them.
The best way to understand how Teboho perseveres and flourishes in such an environment is to watch Jose Bright’s TEDx talk about Teboho (Jose is CEO). Trust me, you won’t regret it.
I was assigned to third grade as a teaching assistant. Many of the regular teachers had failed to show up because of the weather, so the 4th graders joined us as well. After Katie, the regular volunteer teacher who was amazing with the kids, went over spelling and grammar, I started a math lesson. (To my chagrin, Katie had to leave soon after I started teaching.) The kids already knew fractions (impressive for third graders), so I decided to teach the kids how to reduce fractions. I introduced the concept poorly, and many kids struggled on the first quiz I gave them. Watching the kids work on problems themselves shed a ton of light on how they would be able to internalize the lesson. I shifted my presentation, adding visual representations to the arithmetic approach, and nearly all the kids aced the second quiz. I was incredibly proud of them.
After lunch, I was assigned to the high school boys and requested use of the computer lab to teach global warming and Google Spreadsheets. After discussing the basics of global warming for about 20 minutes, I divided the class into teams of 4 or 5 that huddled around the three computers that had a working Internet connection. Each group calculated their carbon footprint — a lesson plan I stole from volunteer teaching at a Trenton, NJ high school. As you might expect, their footprints were much lower than the results I was accustomed to see in Trenton, but the recommendations of how to reduce their footprints were still useful (e.g., bike to a destination instead of taking a shared taxi).
The highlight of the day came next: I introduced the students to spreadsheets, which they had never seen before. I can only imagine how the students experienced the Internet prior to that day — as this fantastical machine that tracked the statistics of all their favorite sports stars? Did the students envision thousands of people monitoring games and carefully updating every single website with results by punching in each individual number? Perhaps the high schoolers chalked it up to something akin to “magic.” As I watched the kids create a formula and then “fill down”, the look of awe and enlightenment on their faces will be something I will always treasure. By the end of the lesson, the kids were creating time-series graphs to track the performance of their preferred soccer teams!
The Bauer-Ginsberg Commission -- charged by President Obama to shorten voting wait times -- is traveling the country listening to experts and the public. I attended the first meeting in June and I had barely sat down when Chairman Bauer announced that the committee would not make recommendations for federal legislation; instead, they will report on "best practices." That decision is unfortunate though understandable, given Congress's inability to pass anything without a "cliff-like" deadline (e.g., government funding, tax cut expiration, debt ceiling, student loans).
While the committee should recommend best practices for registration and voting, I fear those exhortations will fall on the deaf ears of Republican state legislatures. (I highly recommend those two white papers, authored by Profs Ansolabehere and Stewart -- 2/3rd of my undergraduate thesis committee. The only point I would add is that all polling places should be required to have backup paper ballots on hand in case something goes drastically wrong.)
Thus, I recommend an approach that leverages the good will of civil servants and the tenacity of mission-driven organizations. Bauer-Ginsburg should delve into the election administration data and produce a calculator that would tell county bureaus of election how many voting machines and poll workers they will need to avoid being the next Florida or Virginia. National exposure and use of such a calculator would shorten lines everywhere, without the need for new legislation. Further, watchdog organizations such as Election Protection could run the calculations for all 3,000 counties and pressure election officials to add resources in under-served areas. Finally, if local bureaucrats were still recalcitrant in allocating the resources necessary for a smooth Election Day, at least campaigns could know where trouble spots might arise, and be better prepared to assist voters.
In the spirit of the new fad of pretotyping, I've mocked up the following calculator based on very rough data -- try it yourself (below the fold)!
The late David Rakoff wrote a novel, set it to verse
And surprisingly the story starts off with a curse
I didn’t expect the plot to involve superstition
In a book that focuses on the real life perdition
No subject taboo, no stone left unturned
The generosity and evil of characters is burned
In your mind as you attempt to digest this work
The rhymes just become an flavorful perk
His most overused word is the adjective convivial
and is invariably paired with its sibling, “trivial”
Ironic because the material is definitely not –
Though detailing why would spoil the plot
So just buy a book for a friend or yourself
The non-Kindle version — it looks great on the shelf
The only danger is that you’ll start to speak
in couplets, rhyming right out of your beak
Honor dear Rakoff, who left us too soon,
By reading Cherish/Perish: it helps heal the wound.
Expectations are low for Obama’s climate speech tomorrow. If I were Obama, here’s how I would “go big“:
1) Instruct the EPA to set up a cap-and-trade system, similar to their successful sulfur dioxide market. The Supreme Court affirmed that the EPA had the authority to set up such a system in 2007. Conservatives will hate this program, and it would divide the country, so I recommend that Obama gives himself the following “out”:
2) Propose that if Congress passes a Carbon Tax Cut plan (i.e., a Tax-and-Dividend plan re-branded as a “tax cut” because no one knows what a “dividend” is) by January 1, 2015, then the EPA will drop its cap-and-trade rule in favor of Congress’s action. Let the Republicans in the House stand in between Americans and a bigger tax rebate check. Let Republicans stand on the side of Big Oil and against Americans “keeping more of their money” (as Republicans are want to argue). Further, the 2015 deadline allow Congress to pass the law in the lame duck session, which is the one time when plenty gets done on the Hill.
The worst that could happen for Obama is that Congress gridlocks on the tax cut and he is saddled with the cap-and-trade program. Since Obama doesn’t have to run for re-election, that’s hardly a big deal. Candidates in 2014 can run on the tax cut, and presidential candidates in 2016 can run against Republicans who voted against the tax cut.
The worst that could happen for the country is that Congress passes a meek Carbon Tax Cut that only nicks the bottom line of carbon-spewing companies. However, once the program is in place, it’ll be easier to expand it (like fuel economy standards over the years), especially since expansion means larger rebates for Americans.
I think the upside for the world, on the other hand, would be substantial. So, go big, Obama!
(I realize that the world is much more complicated than this blog post, that rules take a long time to implement, and are often challenged in court. A realpolitik approach would be to direct the EPA to quickly promulgate a few regulations less complicated than the full cap-and-trade system that would go into effect Jan 1, 2015. Hopefully fear of those regs would still compel industry to push Congress to act.)
I love A/B tests of ads and can’t wait until YouTube makes an A/B tool widely available. Good for IPA for taking their organization’s mission and applying it to their own actions. However, I think IPA’s test has a few flaws that provide good lessons for others who want to gain knowledge about their advertising.
1) In order to track which donations came from which ad, IPA set up two different textable (SMS) key words on the same short code. To donate $10 to IPA, you can either text “IPA” (ad 1) or “action” (ad 2) to 80888. The difference of the memorability of those words might lead to differential giving patterns regardless of the ads’ relative effectiveness. If someone doesn’t have their phone in hand when the donation instructions appear on the screen, can they remember the acronym IPA? Maybe if they like the beer…but even then I think an English word is easier to remember, and thus could lead to more donations.
2) To rigorously test one ad vs the other, the ads would have to be sent randomly to the back seats of NYC taxi cabs. Perhaps the taxi ad placing agency, Verifone, has true randomization built into their system, but I worry that Verifone says to clients like IPA “yes, we can randomly place ads” while confusing arbitrary assignment with random assignment. Under arbitrary assignment, ad 1 might end up being seen more on the upper west side, and ad 2 ends up being seen more in the Bronx. NYC has large income and cultural disparities between nearby neighborhoods that could disrupt the experiment.
At the end of the day, my expectation is that issues (1) and (2) only create minor problems, and that if ad 1 were five or ten times more efficient at spurring action than ad 2, IPA would see the difference in their donation results. But that line of reasoning leads me to my final and largest concern:
3) The ads are very similar! I donate to IPA because I want them to test large ideas against each other — such as microfinance vs direct giving. In this way, a few good experiments can really shake up the poverty intervention landscape. With regard to the taxi ads, imagine that you work for IPA that ad 2 does a bit better than ad 1: what would your conclusion be? (Other than people don’t mind the shirt.) Since both ads have a narrator giving a straightforward explanation of the organization’s mission, I’m not sure what I would take from the test. The angle of each ad is slightly different (donor POV vs. scientist POV), but I would have much preferred IPA test two completely different messages or tactics against each other. For instance, staid vs zany, American POV vs African POV, or single-camera vs crowd-sourced. I realize that some of these ideas might be challenging to the creative team, but my position (if I were sitting at the IPA conference room) would be to hold off on the test until Creative had at least one off-beat idea that would contrast with these straightforward ads.
In general, A/B tests of video is a burgeoning field, and I’m glad IPA is leading the way so we can learn both what worked and what could be improved. Hopefully they’ll publish their results!
 Also, to be fair, there aren’t obvious solutions to the first two issues. IPA could spend money on a second short code, but of course the short codes might have variable memorability as well. (And getting deep in the weeds: IPA should have used the “IPA” short code in ad 2, which actually mentions the acronym in the ad’s narration.) For (2), we need more organizations to think like IPA and ask buyers to include true randomization in their ad placements./a