Q&A With Avi Schiffman: the MI Teen Behind Viral COVID-19 Site

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Avi Schiffman beside his website, photo by Annie Poole

Running Start student and tech-whiz Avi Schiffman created a website to track the COVID-19 virus when it was isolated in one province of China. Since its release, the site has blown up and received millions of views. Schiffman sat down with Editor-in-Chief Annie Poole to talk about his experience.

How and why did you start this website? 

I started the website around Christmas last year. I saw little news coming out from China and they were underreporting their numbers. It was really hard to find the data on how many cases there were and what was going on. You would have to go to Chinese websites, in Chinese, and you don’t even know if you can trust it. 

I started working on a website that would do something called ‘web scraping’. It goes to local government websites. For example in Korea, they have a special Korean government health website that gets those numbers and then it crosses numbers with the WHO and the CDC to make sure they are accurate. It puts it in an easy to read format, and I’m working on being able to sort through it and search for specific countries.

 If you want to know the numbers in Korea, you have the recoveries and the deaths all right in front of you and I’m going to add percentages too so you don’t have to scour the entire internet to find how many cases there are. I’m working on adding a breakdown of each state. There’s a timeline thing that will say 3 new cases in Korea and you can click on it and go directly to sources so it is not pulling numbers out of thin air. 

There’s no political bias. It’s just numbers. In my opinion, I think there’s a lot of countries that are doing a terrible job, but it’s not like I’m going to change the numbers.

What’s really cool is that people from all around the world are viewing this site. I’ve gotten visitors from every country by now. Only 40% of my traffic is from the United States, so that means a lot of people from Europe and Asia use it. That’s why I’m working on translating it to a bunch of languages. 

How long did it take you to create the website and how much time have you spent on it since? 

I’ve definitely spent over 200 hours on it by now. It’s the only thing I’ve been doing. I haven’t had five minutes where I’m not working on it or going to meetings. It’s been pretty stressful, but I think I’ve been able to manage it.

The actual website only took me a few days to create, but it’s evolved so much. I’ve rewritten the entire website twice by now to make it better and add more sources. I added travel regulations too, so it’s always evolving. There’s never a time where I’m not coding it or adding more things. At one point, I accidentally added ‘laptops’ to ‘survival foods,’ so people were emailing me to fix that. The code itself didn’t take long because I’ve been coding for awhile. 

There are other websites that have started tracking the Coronavirus but I got in way earlier than them. I started this when there were fewer than 1000 cases in only one province in China. That’s where it started and that’s where I learned about it. In the future, all I have to do is change some stuff and this works for Ebola if that happens again. 

How did you get into coding? 

I’ve been coding for about 10 years now. I recently got into web development. The main reason why I like programming is because I can create things. It’s less about how the 1s and 0s work, I mean that’s cool, but it’s also more cool that I can make something. I type a couple weird words and all of a sudden people get coronavirus information. That’s so cool. I never expected this to make money. 

Why is it important to have accurate info? 

The bigger picture of this is how technology can help problems with global health. There’s always going to be more pandemics, more giant earthquakes. When ebola happened, there wasn’t a website to see numbers. I think it’s a really cool thing that I am able to use technology to help people all around the world with transparency and misinformation. I think the world could do a better job and I’m glad that I’m able to help with that. Even the CDC, we believe that they are transparent and they are a good organization, but they are not good at relaying the information to the masses. If I’m just the average person I’m not going to know how to go to the CDC’s complicated website and download a PDF and read through all their weird nonsense and fancy scientific words. 

When did the site really start gaining traction? 

When I first made it, I published it online and put it on Reddit because I make things all the time and I always share them online. This one became pretty popular at the start because it got pinned on Reddit and I put it on Next Door where all the parents are. One dad contacted GeekWire and they interviewed me. From there, it got noticed from other media places like The Seattle Times, King 5, The Today Show and now Fox.

There’s been a lot of websites that have copy and pasted it and haven’t credited me. All the national attention has made the traffic insane. It took me a month to get to the first million visitors. A week to get to 2 million. 2 days to get to the third million. And another day to get 3 million more. [at the time this article is published it has 13 million visitors now]. It’s exponentially increased and it’s only going to grow. So many opportunities have opened up. I have too many internships and job offers. I can’t do everything. I never thought I would be turning internships down. 

Do you people think are overreacting or do you think they have the right to react this way? 

This will be really interesting as the weeks go on. For the past month or so, Americans have been looking at this from an outsider perspective. As the weeks and months progress, it’s gotten all the way to Seattle. Now everyone is scurrying to Costco to get the last water bottle. That behavior is concerning because I think people should learn to prepare in advance more. There’s always going to be something. 

But people are panicking. It’s overwhelming hospitals. For example, my mom is a doctor and she runs a private clinic in Bellevue. They don’t have any masks anymore because people took them all. And Harborview only has a certain number of beds. If younger people go to the hospital, you’ll be okay and older people who go to the hospital will probably be okay too. But once there’s no more room in the hospital, what do you do? 

I think a lot of people are misinformed. I think a lot of people think it’s just the flu. And even if it is just the flu, I don’t want to get the flu. The flu sucks. I got the flu last year and I was blind for a week. 

There’s also a big misconception about masks. A lot of people are wearing masks but they don’t really do anything. They protect other people from you not you from other people. 

Another big thing is that people need to learn how to cancel events. That’s how this stuff spreads globally. Also, the Olympics. It reminds me of Zika and Brazil. Poor Olympics, they keep getting pandemics. I think the Olympics should be delayed or canceled. 

 I have to give China credit. They are really good at controlling their population. They quarantined over 700 million people. You can’t do that in the US so people need to realize that they need to self quarantine.

A lot of people think this is a seasonal thing or the heat will kill it. There hasn’t been any evidence to support that. There’s countries like Singapore, which are super hot, and it is spreading like wildfire there and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. It will probably infect over 50% of the world population in the coming months to the year. With the death rate of 2-4%, that’s a lot of people. 

Are you working on any other projects? 

A lot of them are on hold right now, but I’ve been working with the US Government on something for use in courts. I made something that can make sure that images can be used for evidence in courts and make sure they haven’t been edited. It’s 100% accurate because it’s a closed ecosystem. If you change 1 pixel out of a trillion then it will know. In May, if it doesn’t get canceled, the government is flying me to Colorado to present this to investors and hopefully put this into a majority of police stations. It’s so easy for an attorney to open up photoshop and coverup a tattoo. That can get people wrongly convicted.

A while ago, Mercer Island hired me to make a mobile app for Summer Fest. You can go on your phone and there will be a map of the island. For example, it will show New Seasons and discounts you can get there and directions. It’s really simple.

What do you see doing in your future? 

I’d like to make something really big. Facebook is big and I’d like to make something big like that. The next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. The next Larry Page won’t make a search engine. I’d like to be the next Avi Schiffman and make the next really big thing that will change everything. I want to change the world really, and make something positive, but also really cool. 

Favorite quote: “Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs