In the third grade, he coded a website with stick figures. In middle school, he coded video games. Now, at 17, Avi Schiffmann has coded a highly-trafficked website that tracks cases of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that first emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Schiffmann, who lives in Seattle, coded the coronavirus tracking website ncov2019.live when there were fewer than 1,000 cases in China. Since then, it has spread to more than 165 countries, with more than a quarter-million cases. On March 11, the World Health Organization officially characterized coronavirus as a pandemic.
“I think this is the first big world event for our generation,” Schiffman said. “It’s kind of crazy how this is such a big world event that’s completely changed everything from the economy to football games.”
However, despite the increase in COVID-19 cases, finding reliable, current statistics about the disease was difficult. “I noticed it was just really hard to find anything that was happening,” Schiffmann said. “I thought I could make something better than what the governments were doing, so I made a website.”
His website provides the latest data on the number of confirmed cases, serious cases, deaths, and people who have recovered, both worldwide and in individual countries. The site also includes an interactive Google map, travel advisories, and information on the disease and its prevention.
Schiffmann, who also competes in ski races and hackathons, is a self-taught coder. “Everything I know is from watching YouTube videos and reading things online,” he said.
Schiffman uses web scraping to retrieve the data for his website. By using web scraping, Schiffman can download data from government websites and automatically have the data update on his site every couple of minutes.
He uses reliable sources like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the site’s data. However, Schiffmann said that these sources don’t always present information in a quick, easy-to-understand way.
“It’s maybe about every day they’ll upload a PDF. And you have to download that PDF and then you have to sort through all the complicated scientific things and look over a whole report,” Schiffman said. “I just want to see the numbers easily on my phone.”
Being able to view coronavirus statistics easily is beneficial for everyone, but especially for young students. Jody Wong, a Ph.D. student at the University of Buffalo, said that she refers to the website now and then. “It’s particularly useful for researchers like myself who study risk and science communication,” Wong said.
The site has gotten more attention than he expected. As of March 2020, over 40 million people have visited Schiffmann’s website. On March 16, he posted on his Twitter that he relocated the site to a larger server to compensate for all the traffic. “It has been visited by every single country on the planet by now,” he said.
Schiffman said that before his school was shut down because of the pandemic, he saw students and teachers using it. He also said a lot of news organizations use it to get their numbers. “I’m only a teenager, but I’m able to provide a data source that millions of adults and massive places use,” Schiffman said.
To help the site improve, Schiffmann welcomes emails from people who have suggestions or feedback about the site. But due to the site’s popularity, this sometimes means he receives over 1,000 emails a day.
Lila Shroff, 18, met Schiffmann in early March during an interview for their school’s radio station. She was impressed by his hard work but could tell he was overwhelmed by the popularity of the site, so she offered to help him with media-related tasks.
“Avi has done everything to make the site happen, and it’s so impressive to see it unfold from behind the scenes,” Shroff said. “He is hardworking, passionate, and genuinely cares about making the world a better place.”
Schiffmann said that he has been offered help from computer-related professionals, but prefers to work solo. “To be honest, a lot of the things I can do myself,” he said. “But it’s great that I have the opportunity to connect with them.”
Although he has been offered internship and job opportunities at just 17 years old, Schiffman said he doesn’t code just for the attention, but simply because he likes it.
“If you like art, you would use a paintbrush. I like making things. Instead of painting, I can type a bunch of random words and bam, there’s a coronavirus website,” Schiffman said.
For other teens who might be interested in learning to code, it doesn’t necessarily mean self-teaching from YouTube videos, as Schiffman did. Starting small is the key. “Think of simple projects to work on,” Schiffman said. “Let’s say you want to start learning how to make a website. Maybe make a complicated to-do list.”
Schiffman’s own to-do list includes continuing to update his website with more data and graphs as users share more ideas with him. For instance, on March 22, a feature was added to the site that shows the daily increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in easy-to-read percentages.
But he is also considering expanding his skills to other issues too.
His coronavirus website, he said, might turn into a tracker for a variety of things because of his interest in humanitarian projects. He recently bought the domain GermTracker, so he can be the first one to track other pandemics or even other world events. “The Australian fires weren’t necessarily a germ, but that is something that is very interesting to track. I’d like to make a lot more things.”
“I know that he is very focused on the site in the present, but once COVID-19 eventually blows over, I can’t wait to see all the amazing ways in which he changes the world,” Shroff said.
“If you just put your mind to it, you can make something like what I did,” Schiffman said. “You just have to have the motivation to want to change the world.”Find More Stories