The domain for ncov2019’s is sort of hard and kind of ridiculous but that was then the official name of the virus.” What Schiffmann found was either difficult to read (because it was poorly designed) or difficult to understand (because he doesn’t speak Mandarin).
The last nine months – the Long March of 2020 – have been a litany of catastrophes. Pandemic coronavirus; uncontrolled wildfires; enforcing hurricanes and a derecho; paramilitary violence at demonstrations for racial justice. But amid all of it, amid a smog of disinformation hovering above everything, it’s easy to forget that back in January and February everyone knew bad things were coming but did not know what bad things were. A virus was coming out of China and spread around the world, and while scientists were trying to understand what was happening, a 17-year-old boy from Washington State became one of the first to bring some clarity—to give a name to fear and help to understand it.
Avi Schiffmann was already an avid programmer: He had built a simple but robust web – Search – Tool to help collect sports statistics for his high school. In January, when Covid-19 began to spread first—before the disease had an official name to it—Schiffmann realized he could help. The telecommunications system was unable to find other Covid trackers, he told WIRED science writer Megan Molteni today in an interview for the virtual event WIRED25. The domain for, ncov2019’is kind of hard and kind of ridiculous but that was the official name of the virus back then.”
What Schiffmann found was either hard to read (because it was poorly designed) or difficult to understand (because he doesn’t speak Mandarin). He says that he thought it would be cool to just make a dashboard to track that around.
He was right. It was cool. Every movie about a disaster shows government-run crisis command centers with gigantic screens in front that show maps and numbers in response to commands like “sitrep!” and “tactical view!” The web is packed with them now but in the early months of 2020, it’s fair to say that no one knew what was going on until Schiffmann started scrapping data from various national health agency websites. China and South Korea had good ones. The original site took him a few days to construct and was based on the sports tracker. And then his traffic started to surge.
He eventually expanded across 195 countries and regional breakdowns to find the data. “Singles days, for months, there were new countries infected. These were new scrapers “As happened everything changed format,” says Schiffmann. He began to be scolded by his teachers for working on the site instead of paying attention in class.
But it was worth it. Schiffmann’s work brought clarity to the pandemic won Person of the Year at the 2018 New York State. He got on the plane.
All of which means it is now time to quantify another potential catastrophe. Schiffmann tells Molteni that his next project, which will debut in a couple of days, will collect and provide able information about the presidential election. “I feel like a lot of people want to learn more about the actual policies of the candidates,” he says. Schiffmann says his site will dive deeper into policies and even budget proposals than presenting just a couple of quotes (as he says). Like his Covid – Tracker, it’ll be “done in an interesting manner that doesn’t look like a boring government – web-page”.
But…wait. Wer Schiffmann older enough to vote in November?
I will actually do it. I’ll be turning 18 on October 26 so I’m pretty excited about that,” he says. The fight for democracy and knowledge needs all the soldiers it can get.
More news from WIRED25