Despite being a year with turmoil at every turn, 2020 has already had some majorly defining moments. Two, in particular, have captured the attention of people in every corner of the world—the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.
One Seattle-area teenager has played a major role in both.
17-year-old Avi Schiffmann started gaining name recognition after creating one of the world’s most-used COVID-19 case tracking tools. Now, he’s doing it again. Schiffmann has created a tool to help track protests and give protestors invaluable information in real-time.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, few reliable options existed for tracking outbreaks and case numbers. Local health departments publish regular data, but it is often difficult to access.
Schiffmann saw a problem and decided to step in with a solution. In late December—way before most people were even concerned about COVID-19—he put his coding skills to use. The resulting project would turn out to be ncov2019.live, now one of the world’s most utilized coronavirus tracking tools.
The high school coder scraped data from organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and international government websites. By pooling that data together and frequently updating it, Schiffmann’s tracker became a one-stop-shop for all things COVID-19. The site features live statistics regarding infections, deaths, recovered patients, rates of change, and even survival rates for countries around the world. Not only is it available in numeric form, visitors can also find the data on a map.
For his efforts, Schiffmann won praise from countless sources, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci called the tracking site “essential” after epidemiologists started using it to predict the spread of COVID-19.
Still, Schiffmann isn’t happy with the fact that he had to create the tool. During an interview with Business Insider, he said, “In the future, I hope pressure is on the WHO [to make a tool like this]. The responsibility shouldn’t be on some random kid, but it’s obvious people want to know the statistics.”
In response to those who say anyone could have made the tracking tool, he also had a clever response. Schiffmann told the MIT Technology Review, “A lot of people have said, ‘Oh this is so easy to program, any experienced developer could have made this in a week or so.’ I’m like, ‘If it’s so easy, why didn’t you do it?’”
Civil Rights Tech
Rather than relaxing after the success of his first tracking tool, Schiffmann once again jumped into action when another pressing issue arose in the world. With mass protests sweeping the nation in late May and early June following the killing of George Floyd, he wanted to give people a way to keep track of them.
Schiffmann quickly developed a tool to track the protests and provide attendees with crucial information. Within days, 2020protests.com became another extremely valuable resource—this time for a civil rights issue rather than a public health one.
The site contains a list of every U.S. state and provides details about current protest locations in each one, whether the National Guard has been deployed, curfew times, and more. It also includes resources for those who want to donate to social justice causes and sign various petitions.
While his protest tracking site doesn’t garner nearly as much attention as ncov2019.live, it is still an impressive resource. That’s especially true considering the fact it was built so quickly.
Shunning the System
What makes Schiffmann such a marvel is not necessarily his work itself, but the way he has managed it amid a rise to fame. The COVID-19 tracking site welcomes about 30 million visitors every day. Unsurprisingly, that has led advertisers to pitch Schiffmann with offers. He notes that one contract to put ads on the site would have been worth $8 million. If he had opted to integrate his own ads into the tool, it could have been worth more than $30 million.
So, why did a 17-year-old turn down such a massive payday?
Schiffmann says that the reason is twofold. Primarily, he doesn’t want to be a profiteer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also says that including ads and popups would ruin the user interface (UI) of his tracking tool. It could slow down its performance for those without a fast Internet connection and possibly make it unusable.
The decision to forgo a fortune took guts but was ultimately the right thing to do. That’s the sort of attitude that more programmers and tech visionaries could stand to adopt today.
Of course, Schiffmann received more than just financial pitches. He also got several job offers, including one from Microsoft. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the conscience-driven teen, he turned them down. Instead, Schiffmann will continue to pursue his own projects.
The Seattle-area teen also forged a valuable connection with cybersecurity company Cloudflare. Its CEO, Matthew Prince, sent him some Cloudflare shirts, along with free protection for the site against DDOS attacks and free hosting.
Schiffmann also hopes to capitalize on some of the relationships he has built down the road. “Now I know a ton of VCs and investors… if I started a company tomorrow, they’d at least read my business plan,” he says.
A Bright Future
It’s clear that Schiffmann is a special individual. Not only have his coding talents helped improve the lives of millions, his morals have shown that he is doing so for the right reasons.
With that in mind, Schiffmann has a bright future—even if it isn’t very traditional. He says, “I sort of plan to go to college eventually, maybe? I probably won’t go to college. I’m working on more interesting things.”
One of those things is the upcoming election. It’s unclear exactly what Schiffmann has up his sleeve this time. However, it will surely make an impact whenever it arrives.