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ACASignups.net's Charles Gaba: Not Nate Silver, Just a Guy with a Spreadsheet

BY Miranda Neubauer | Sunday, April 6 2014

Charles Gaba, the Michigan web developer who has gained fame for compiling Affordable Care Act enrollment numbers, hates it when people call him the next Nate Silver. "I think he's fantastic ... but I'm not a statistician. I'm just plugging data into a spreadsheet as it comes and saying, well, I think it will be this much," he said.

Yet Gaba and Nate Silver have at least one part of their background in common. Both came to prominence through their involvement with the Daily Kos community. Like Nate Silver, who started out as "Poblano," Gaba started out there as "Brainwrap." And in Gaba's case, the Daily Kos community is now giving back.

When the enrollment period started in October, "I was just curious about the numbers," said Gaba, a Democrat who himself sought insurance through the Healthcare.gov. He knew that Health and Human Services intended to release monthly updates, but had expected weekly updates as well. After no more frequent updates emerged and inspired by an initial Google Spreadsheet tracking attempt of state numbers by freelance data consultant (and now executive director of the Analyst Institute) Aaron Strauss, Gaba began his own effort. Posting at his Daily Kos diary, he put out a crowdsourcing call for volunteers to help him compile state specific numbers. "The original idea was one person for each state," he said. Since the data didn't end up being available for states using the federal exchanges, "some people did more than one state, and I had a dozen or so people send in items quoting a state press release."

By mid-December, he had the attention of Forbes journalist Dan Diamond and Washington Post health care journalist Sarah Kliff.

"Up until then it was just a spreadsheet, there was no website," he said. As a web developer, he decided after that initial burst of attention to create a more formal web presence at Acasignups.net.

One of his contributors was Olav Grinde. "He was obsessive about it, every morning he would send me like a dozen links," Gaba said. In late December the two had a running bet about where the numbers would be at the end of the year. "I think he actually came closer ... and we both came pretty close," Gaba noted. Following that, he began making more public predictions for the numbers at the end of January. "As it turned out, I was like really, really, really close," he said, and gained the reputation as prognosticator. "But I didn't really have any sort of formal approach ... it was really more sort of eyeballing it."

But it was enough to get him some of his biggest recognition yet, in a blog post by Paul Krugman, who compared him positively to the relaunch of FiveThirtyEight.com, which he criticized, while praising Gaba for "filling a niche by using a lot more data than the mainstream media."

Now he has between 20 and 30 different people contributing, two or three most regularly, from Daily Kos and beyond. "Sometimes I have four, five people send me the same link." He explained how the state level data was important since HHS often was not releasing its monthly data until the 11th or 12th of the following month and it wasn't very detailed. "That's six weeks, that's an eternity in politics," he said. "I would go two or three weeks where I was updating all these state exchanges, but there's 36 other states that would just be sitting there and that actually confused some people," he noted. "They were saying the state exchanges are outperforming healthcare.gov by 10:1," he recalled, even when it was just a question of the data being not yet available. "If you look at the data right now the state exchanges look phenomenal, and the other 36 states doesn't look so good ... but that's because the total is a big lump sum at the bottom."

In addition, Gaba wanted to emphasize that while the media was focusing on the 7 million number, a more meaningful compilation would include sign-ups under Medicaid, the Small Business Health Options Program and off-exchange enrollments.

Gaba also began branching out beyond the numbers, writing critical posts outlining what he saw as flaws in the arguments of Avik Roy and Megan McArdle about a McKinsey study which came to the conclusion that only 27 percent of enrollees were previously uninsured.

More recently, Gaba said he was one of the first to counter a Republican talking point calling into question how many enrollees had actually paid for their plans. Gaba pointed out that a higher percentage of earlier enrollees had paid than those who hadn't enrolled until late March. "Who pays their cable bill six weeks ahead of time ... It turned out that in Vermont ... 94 percent of the January enrollees had paid, and 92 percent of the February enrollees had paid, and then when you get to March and April it drops off to 12 percent or something, they just signed up five minutes ago," he said.

Other efforts to track the numbers by the consulting firm The Advisory Board and the health-care law critical site Enroll Maven ended up faltering in November and December, he said. "That left me as the last man standing."

This isn't the first time Daily Kos helped inspire Gaba toward online political engagement. When the health care law first passed in spring 2010, he kicked off an effort to organize a "rose bomb" of 1,470 roses for then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 70th birthday. Ahead of the 2012 election, he helped create and circulate a viral graphic with the title "Republican Rape Advisory Chart," mocking the terror alert color codes to chronicle what he called the "disturbingly long list" of problematic comments Republicans like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock had made about rape. Gaba is somewhat ambivalent about that claim to fame. "I'd much rather be known as the Obamacare chart guy than the rape chart guy," he said.

This week, the Daily Kos community took steps to pay Gaba back for his efforts. On Tuesday, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas sent out an e-mail to the site's list asking supporters to contribute to an ActBlue account in support of Gaba. As of Sunday evening, over 4,200 contributors had raised about $59,000 for him.

"The Daily Kos community has always embraced a data-driven approach to news coverage and analysis. It's no accident that the only three people who called the 2012 presidential election exactly -- Emory professor Drew Linzer, Nate Silver and me -- all are current or former participants in the site," Moulitsas wrote in an e-mail to techPresident Tuesday. " As a collective whole, we are less interested in what people's guts are telling them, and more interested in what the data says. Charles is the latest star to emerge from the site's community, and it's no accident he did so by meticulously culling data in order to present an objective picture of the progress of the Affordable Care Act."

Originally Gaba had intended to complete his project with the end of the enrollment period, but that was before the media attention and the announcement of various extension and report delays.

"Up until the other day I had two main concerns about doing this long term. One was that nobody was paying me," he said, aside from a personal Paypal account on the site and banner ads, "The other is that I have a day job. I have my own business needing more and more of my time and my website clients are getting impatient. They say, that's great that you're getting interviewed, where's my website."

Then he found out about the fundraising initiative. "It was a complete surprise [when they initially called to ask me about doing it ]... and I thought at first they wanted to use my work to help them raise money," he said. " I knew that these sorts of [fundraisers] can have a substantial impact, I donated to several of them myself...but I never dreamed that it would be [me] ... it's a significant sum, so I'm very very appreciative, and so in one shot they've basically taken away one of those two excuses not to keep going." At the moment, he has now committed himself to keep going until at least early May, when he expects a final report from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "And then after that I don't know because ...I don't know how much interest is going to drop off, but we'll see. I haven't made any definite decision, but this fundraising thing is certainly encouraging me to keep it going."

Looking ahead beyond the numbers, Gaba sees a new challenge for the media and other researchers to take on. "As the numbers guy, as the guy who has somehow become the one-stop shop for the media for this information, I will say this," he said. "In one sense the numbers do mean a lot only because each of those numbers is a person, is a human being who either has coverage and didn't have it before or has other coverage than they did before. On the other hand, the 7 million number, ... the [insurance experts] have repeatedly said it's not a magic number, it wasn't going to fail if it was 6.9 million, what was more important was the mix. It would be better to have 3 million healthy people than it would be to have 30 million sick people. It doesn't do any good to have a huge number of people enrolled if they're all going to have diabetes."

Gaba is not sure he is the right person to do that next step of analysis, and pointed to other groups like the Kaiser Family Foundation. "There's only so many demographic areas that I can cover and I'm not an expert in some of these things either ...they're really more equipped, I'm really just the bean counter," he said. "I had one guy today ask me here in Michigan ... about the Congressional district breakdown of how many people in each district have enrolled in Medicaid ... and I'm like I don't know ... People seem to think that I'm some sort of all knowing health care guru now...I've learned a lot, but I don't have a degree in actuary tables, I'm a web developer and I'm reasonably good with a spreadsheet, that's all."

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