Coronavirus site used by millions
Computer whiz Avi Schiffmann, 17, spends much of his time these days constantly updating and improving the website, which automatically scrapes data from reliable sources from all over the world. The site, which originally updated every 10 minutes, now updates every minute to provide the latest statistics on the number of confirmed cases, serious cases, deaths, and recovered — both worldwide and in each country — in real time. The site also hosts an interactive Google map, a Twitter feed, travel advisories, information on the disease and its prevention, as well as tips for preparing for quarantine situations.
“I started working on this project at Christmastime, when there were fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases — all in mainland China,” said Schiffmann, a high school junior. “It was hard to get clear, concise, and accurate information on what was going on, and I wanted to do something to fix this.”
Schiffmann, who is working on a variety of different coding projects concurrently, decided to tackle this particular one primarily because it would enable him to learn web scraping technology. “It would also be a way to help with global health, which is something that’s needed when not all governments are the nicest or transparent, and it is hard to get information,” he said.
Schiffmann’s website scrapes information from many different sources, including official government health organizations (local, national, and international), and trustworthy news outlets. He relies on an online community of news curators to help with this. He also coded the website to crosscheck data to make sure it is accurate. “It’s all automated, so I don’t have to input anything manually. The web scraper runs even when I’m sleeping,” he explained.
Planned improvements to ncov2019.live include regional statistical breakdowns, graphs comparing the COVID-19 outbreak to historical pandemics, a vaccine tracker, and translation of the site to 30 different languages. “I am getting 1,000 messages a day. Some are from people thanking me for the site, some are from media outlets reaching out for interviews, and many are from PhDs who have suggestions for information I could add,” Schiffmann said.
Even in English only, the site has been visited by individuals in every country on earth, with less than half from the United States. As word has gotten out in the mainstream media about Schiffmann and the site, the number of visitors has grown exponentially. Whereas it took a month to reach the first million, just in the past 24 hours alone the site was visited by 3.2 million people, including 30,000 from Israel.
The teenager, who plans to take a year or two off after high school to travel the world to participate in hackathons, hopes to become a serial entrepreneur. He said he isn’t in it for the money, but rather to be creative and make an impact. “I want to have the skills to make the next big thing, to change the world. I’m not interested in imitating anyone else. I want to be the next Avi Schiffmann,” he proclaimed.
The eldest child of a physician mother and a biologist father, Schiffmann moved around a lot while growing up, living in Israel, Ireland, the UK, and in six American states. One constant was his passion for coding, which he began to pursue at age seven. An autodidact, he taught himself most of what he knows from online tutorials and networking with online communities. “I use coding like a painter uses a paintbrush. I like the technical aspect, but it’s a creative medium for me. I like making things and sharing them,” he said.
For Schiffmann, who already knows what he wants to do in life, school is something to merely get through. “My grades aren’t so good. I do what I have to to pass my courses. I spend 100 percent of my time on computer stuff,” he said.
When asked whether he ever stops looking at a computer screen, Schiffmann shared that he enjoys traveling and that he also skis competitively. “I prefer the giant slalom, but I also have slalom skis” he said.
While Schiffmann is pleased that the attention he has gained from his coronavirus tracking website has landed him many internship and job offers, he hasn’t forgotten the main purpose of the project. The website is meant to help, and not add to the growing panic as the disease spreads. “I have to admit that it is pretty scary, especially here in Seattle which is the epicenter from which the virus spread in this area. There have been a lot of school closures and cancellations of events. It’s a ghost town around here,” he said.
Schiffmann is critical of governments’ responses to the crisis. “They are not transparent and are trying to save face, and then it is too late. The world needs to be much more prepared for these kinds of things,” he said. “For instance, my mom is a doctor, and she was finally able to get test kits for her patients only now,” he said.
Schiffmann said he was concerned about the spread of misinformation, such as the unproved theory that the virus is seasonal and will soon disappear, and blamed the media for causing unnecessary panic. “People should have preparedness plans and stock up in advance instead of going on panicked Costco runs now,” he said.
In the meantime, Schiffmann is doing his part to help people access accurate information and keep their anxiety in check. It’s a lot of responsibility for a teenager to shoulder, but Schiffmann hopes the missed hours of sleep for him now will translate into a better future for everyone. “But who knows — in three years we could be having this conversation again,” he said.
Rene Geert Zand