Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
When Avi Schiffmann was honored as the 2020 Webby Awards Person of the Year for creating his nCoV2019.live website, an interactive dashboard that updates in real time to provide accurate global data on coronavirus cases, deaths, testing and vaccinations, he shared a five-word acceptance speech that is the matter-of-fact motto of his life: You can learn anything online.
Schiffmann was 17 and a junior at Mercer Island High School when he launched the site in late December 2019; at the time, the coronavirus had not yet been detected outside of China. Within a few months, as the virus spread insidiously around the globe, Schiffmann’s website grew apace to become one of the most essential resources for trustworthy data on the pandemic. By the time the esteemed Dr. Anthony Fauci presented Schiffmann with the Person of the Year award the following May, the site had already provided information to more than 600 million people from every country on Earth. Fauci called the tracking tool “an invaluable resource that sounded the alarm on the virus and its spread, notably calling attention to its severity long before it was broadly recognized.”
While the creation of the coronavirus dashboard site is a standout accomplishment, it is by no means the only project to Schiffmann’s credit for 2020 and beyond. ParentMap caught up with him recently to learn more about his impressive achievements over the past pandemic year and to hear more about what’s next for him.
How did you first get started in coding?
I started computer programming in probably early elementary school. I actually have a CD that has all the code of the first website I made, which was just basically a gallery of my favorite stick figure animations. In middle school, I continued with Python and just general programming, but I fell in love with video game programming. I put my games online and even made some money selling them.
In high school, I started doing a lot of web development and mobile app development, and entering hackathons, which are coding competitions. The first one I went to, I actually won. Since then, I’ve gone to many, many, many hackathons and done many major projects.
How did the coronavirus dashboard site come about?
I had a friend in Asia who was talking about it — he was going into lockdown in China. I just thought it would be interesting to build a dashboard website to track information about the virus. The site first became popular in Asia, just because the virus had not really spread [from there yet]. I think there were something like 51 cases at that time. Then the first case came to the United States — to Washington, which was kind of crazy. So, I’m tracking this virus in China, and all of a sudden it is a couple miles from where I am.
In mid-February, I posted [about the site] on Nextdoor. Someone gave a tip to a reporter at GeekWire, and then they wrote an article about me and my site. Within 24 hours [of the article being published], I was doing interviews for The Seattle Times, The Today Show and so on. That’s how the site initially became recognized in the media.
How much traffic has the site received over the past year?
I’d say in the range of hundreds of millions to 1, maybe 2, billion visitors. I remember I had a peak of 36 million visitors in a single day in late March or early April of last year. It was pretty crazy to think about how to just deal with that — computer-wise, servers and stuff.
Have you ever been hassled for scraping data from domains?
For countries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, it was hard to get the data in the first place. And the data that I do get, it’s hard to know if you can even trust it. That’s been a big thing I’ve had to deal with. I’ve received long emails in Chinese calling me the devil and things like that. It has made for quite an eventful year.
How have your friends and family reacted to all of this?
I have always worked on my own little things — developing websites, video games, 3D modeling, stuff like that. So, it was kind of like, “Oh, Avi’s working on his own little websites.” I didn’t really talk that much about it with them. Back then, when I was still in school, people in my Running Start class at Bellevue College were using my website, but they had no idea that it was my site, that the site was being run by a teenager.
Talk about some of your other recent projects.
I made two other bigger websites in 2020. I basically developed a site for every major issue in 2020. I did a coronavirus website, I did a protest tracker website and I did a whole election site. For the election, I found it kind of hard to know exactly what I was voting for. So, I thought it’d be cool to make a really nice user interface to easily navigate the issues and candidate stances on them.
Providing data to people who can’t easily access it is something I’m very passionate about, and something I think you can see at all three of these websites. They’re all variants of just making it easier to find information.
How have the experiences of the past year influenced your own sense of what being a good citizen or a change maker is?
I definitely would say the biggest thing is that I’ve learned there’s so much an individual can do. You doomscroll through social media and just see all these things that are so terrible, and it feels like there’s really nothing you can do about it. But working on these websites really has given me the naive confidence that I actually can do a lot of things as an individual to solve the problems we face.
Has this been stressful for you?
There was a lot of pressure to keep it working, because there was so much international media attention. I would wake up to thousands of messages. Literally thousands. There would be a country I’ve never heard of before asking to be added to the website, or there was a bug in my code and something wasn’t updating. I have over 250 individual web scrapers gathering all this data. I’m able to scrape tables from random health department websites. But if they changed their format, then that kind of messes up everything. I didn’t want to spread misinformation, so I had to wake up at 3 a.m. and fix the website as fast as possible before people on the West Coast woke up. So, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, but it was worth it in the end.
There’s a lot of things you learn from working on something in the moment that you can’t really learn from education necessarily. It’s like that Mike Tyson quote “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” There’s no course that’s going to prepare a sleep-deprived teenager for how to fix a website and scroll through a terminal and a Linux machine a thousand miles away at 3 a.m. Nothing prepares you for that. So, you kind of have to just learn by doing. I gained like 10 years of work experience practically in a month. It was more than a full-time job.
Everyone who reads about me in articles thinks I’m some 4.0-GPA shoo-in at Harvard. But I’m really not that school-smart at all. I could never really focus in class or on reading textbooks and stuff. I really am just a regular teenager with mediocre grades who just so happened to turn a massive website out.
Other than obsessively refreshing college application portals, what are you working on right now?
I come up with a thousand ideas for websites every single day. I’ve also been trying to learn a lot more about the startup world: raising money and how pitching to investors works. Just kind of stumbling around it, and also learning more fancy development things and getting better at that.