Teen creates site to track coronavirus, and millions of people are using it

When Avi Schiffmann heard of the virus in China, he used his self-taught coding skills to build a website to track — and dispel myths — about the virus.
/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

Before most Americans even heard of the coronavirus, Avi Schiffmann was closely tracking it.

When the high school junior, who lives near Seattle, learned of the mystery virus spreading in China, he decided to build a website that would monitor cases and provide facts about it. It has become wildly popular as the world has braced for the epidemic: Since Christmas, the site has had more than 3 million unique visitors.

“I thought it would be cool if there was a website that could pull in all the information from all kinds of (sources),” he told TODAY Parents. “I mainly wanted to create something that would show the data as accurately as possible because there has been a lot of misinformation.”

Avi Schiffman isn't particularly excited about health analytics. Instead, the high school junior is always looking for challenging projects that help him hone his coding skills. Courtesy Avi Schiffmann

The site collects data from various sources, such as local health departments, and cross checks the data with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dashboard includes quick facts, including total number of confirmed cases, number of confirmed cases outside China, number of deaths, number of people recovered and total countries with coronavirus.

Schiffmann — a self-taught coder who participates in hackathons and hopes to "create something really big" one day — created a program that updates these numbers every 10 minutes. While the data updates automatically, he devotes about six hours a day to improving the site.

“I’m always adding new features. It’s going to adapt as it goes along," he explained. "In the future it might be less interesting to know there are five cases in France. We might be more interested in knowing the percentage increase from last week to this week.”

When Avi Schiffmann isn't creating new projects to improve his coding skills, he enjoys ski racing. Courtesy Avi Schiffmann

That constant evolution explains why Schiffmann’s site includes the number of people who have recovered. He receives about 125 emails a day and heard from some who thought the site was too negative.

“I thought it would be cool if we could have the numbers of those who recovered,” he said. “It shows that it is not all negative. The recovery number is big.”

And, he expects to have a table with cases from every U.S. state and a vaccine tracker in the near future. He's able to keep working on it thanks to donations. (A button at the top of the site allows people to buy him a coffee.)

With as much as he understands about coronavirus, he still felt worried when cases of it were reported in a nearby city in Washington state.

“It has been pretty scary, honestly,” he said. “Not many people are prepared.”

When Avi Schiffmann had a bug on his site that doubled the numbers of coronavirus cases, he received hundreds of panicked emails. Normally, though, people suggest tweaks to make the site easier to use. Courtesy Avi Schiffmann

That’s one of the big things he’s noticed from observing coronavirus: Many countries are poorly equipped to handle it.

“It is really concerning how unprepared the world is,” Schiffmann said. “In the future the world needs to be a lot more prepared for a pandemic.”

Some countries, such as South Korea, seem to be managing it better than others, such as Iran, he’s noticed.

“A lot of countries are not really transparent with their population,” he said. “There are tons of countries under-reporting their numbers not to freak out their population.”

Avi Schiffmann enjoys hackathons where he can use his development and programming skills to challenge himself. When he graduates from college, he plans to take a gap year to travel internationally and participate in hackathons across the globe. Courtesy Avi Schiffmann

While it is easy to feel panicked or focus on negatives, Schiffmann said he enjoys hearing how his site is helping other people.

“Most of my emails are really cool. One of my favorite emails was this guy that was traveling in Beijing and he got quarantined there and he emailed me saying how he used my site all the time to get information,” Schiffmann said. “There are a lot of people who use my website if they are going to travel and they want to know if they are going to be safe. It is really neat to see all that stuff.”

CORRECTION (March 5, 2020, 9:30 a.m. EST) : An earlier version of this story misspelled Avi Shiffmann's name.