In a world hungry for information about the novel coronavirus, 17-year-old Avi Schiffmann made his mark.
Last December, long before his state became the U.S. epicenter of COVID-19 deaths and illnesses Schiffmann coded and launched a website that tracks and compiles information about the disease from dozens of international news and government websites.
Created in “massive” coding sprees that stretched into the morning hours, ncov2019.live garnered millions of page views and a regular audience that peppers the Mercer Island teen with hundreds of messages a day — including one from a man who was quarantined in Beijing during the early days of the outbreak in China.
He’s still ironing out the kinks: On Tuesday evening, for example, he had to fix the total number of deaths in the U.S. related to the virus.
Schiffmann — who was first profiled by GeekWire and attends Mercer Island High School while also earning credits at Bellevue College — shared his thoughts on the virus outbreak and the site in an interview with The Seattle Times on Tuesday.
Here are some highlights. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How’d you get interested in coding?
My dad used to be in programming … I’ve always been interested in computers. I started programming when I was 7. The first website I made was in third or fourth grade. It was a central hub for animated stick figures … I’ve also made a Mars weather forecast website … And a website that aggregates information about protests.
Q: How did the website first come together?
A: I started working on an older version in late December, when information was hard to find. It was scattered around by sources like the WHO, the CDC. I thought it would be good to pull everything together.
A lot of the website was written in massive sprees: watching YouTube videos, learning Linux (an open-source operating system) setting up servers … Before the second version of the site went live, I spent the entire weekend in my room, on my bed, staying up until 7 a.m., sleeping until 2 p.m.
Q: How do you keep it free of misinformation?
A: I’ve made it so it cross-checks the information and numbers with dozens of sources. People also read it and send me messages if it’s inaccurate … It has been a little stressful sometimes. A while ago, there was a massive bug, where it doubled all the numbers of coronavirus cases. And I got hundreds of messages. But overall, I’ve done a good job of managing my server.
Q: How has your community responded to this website?
A: A lot of people I know at my school use my website, and teachers use it, too. I’ve been in class and noticed people using my website … which is really cool to see. And in my local community of Mercer Island, people who are actual software developers have come up to me and offered help if I don’t know how to do the code.
Q: What do you hope comes of it?
A: I hope it shows that technology is useful in these world events, like for the Australian fires or Ebola outbreak. I’d also like to gain skills through all the great people I’ve met while working on this.
Q: You’ve been sifting through information about coronavirus for months now. What’s your biggest takeaway?
A: It’s really hard to know which numbers are accurate. So many health departments don’t release information publicly, or under-report. But my biggest takeaway is that the world isn’t as prepared as they should be. China built a new hospital in 10 days. They should prepare in advance for something like this. They should figure out what to do if school closes for multiple months. No one in America has been freaked out until the past week.