At 6am on Tuesday, Avi Schiffmann, the 17-year-old founder of the world’s most popular coronavirus-tracking site, woke up, brushed his teeth, had a piece of toast and then video-called the UN from his bedroom. “They’re interested in me becoming a youth ambassador for tech. It’s pretty cool,” he tells me over the phone from Mercer Island, near Seattle, where he lives with his mother, a doctor, father, a medical writer, and cat, Louie.
Schiffmann began tracking the spread of the coronavirus in late December when there were just a few hundred confirmed cases in Wuhan. “I noticed it was really hard to find information. If I wanted the most up-to-date numbers, I’d have to go to a local government website, where everything was in Chinese. So I decided to build something better and faster.” Using a technique called web-scraping, Schiffmann began downloading data on the virus from government websites and health sources, adding it to a central data set, which he formatted into tables.
On December 29 ncov2019.live was launched.
At first most of the traffic to Schiffmann’s site came from his “guerrilla marketing” tactics, linking anyone in online chatrooms looking for information on the coronavirus back to his site. Then in March a journalist at Bloomberg wrote a news story on him and everything “exploded”. “It snowballed pretty quickly after that. It was crazy,” he says. Suddenly ncov2019.live was getting millions rather than thousands of hits and there was so much work to keep the site up-to-date that Schiffmann skipped school for a week. “But then Seattle went into lockdown and schools closed anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” he laughs.
Schiffmann’s website is now updated every few seconds, information on infections and deaths is filtered by country and state and there’s even a newsletter you can sign up to. The site now gets 30 million visits a day. “I never expected this to become a pandemic or for my website to become this popular, but both of those things happened.”
Schiffmann skipped school for a week. “But then Seattle went into lockdown and schools closed anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” he laughs.
Most of the scheduling dilemmas 17-year-olds face right now revolve around home schooling, games of Fortnite, Houseparty video calls and TikTok. Schiffmann’s diary is slightly different. In between homework and the six hours a day he spends programming, he and his website have been on a virtual world press tour. Last week he was interviewed for The Daily Show, the prime-time American chat show hosted by Trevor Noah, and was profiled in The New Yorker magazine. He’s had to employ a friend to help answer the thousands of emails he gets a day. Most nights he doesn’t get to bed until 3am. I don’t judge him, then, when he yawns loudly down the phone.
There have been plenty of lucrative offers. He turned down an $8m (£6.3m) contract to put adverts on his site — “It would’ve been annoying” — and has yet to be tempted by any of the job offers he has received from tech companies. “I feel like I wouldn’t really accomplish much if I worked at a big company on an internal project. I’d just be another name and let somebody else take credit for everything. I’d rather start my own stuff.”
Steve Jobs is his idol — “He was a pretty terrible person but a visionary” — and Elon Musk is “awesome”. He has no problem comparing himself to the billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates either: “What we’ve created is pretty similar. He does a lot of things related to global health and technology. I hope that one day I become as big as well.”
Get with the Program!
Schiffmann speaks about his plans with total coolness, which comes as no surprise when he reveals he’s been programming since he was seven years old. How did he learn? YouTube, of course. “There are infinite tutorials. You can learn practically anything.”
Like the rest of the world, Schiffmann is ready for the pandemic to be over. “There is a lot of pressure working on a project this big. I haven’t thought about anything besides the website for more than months. I’m burnt out.”
When things do return to normal, his celebrity status means life will be very different. “My mum’s been showing it to all her patients.” Is there a girlfriend on the scene who is impressed by efforts? “No, but I have had one.” Does he think he’ll have more now? “I hope so. That would be pretty neat.”
“I noticed it was really hard to find information. If I wanted the most up-to-date numbers, I’d have to go to a local government website, where everything was in Chinese.”
University is also on the cards and Stanford or Cambridge, where his parents met, would be “a dream”, but Schiffmann is not interested in studying computer science or maths. “I don’t want to sit there for four years doing something I’ve been doing for a long time. I’d be interested in something more creative.”
So when lockdown ends and Schiffmann finally gets some time off, what will he do? There are tech internships he’d like to apply for, but his first holiday will be to a “hackathon”, a 24-hour coding competition where contestants have to solve a programming challenge. “I’ve done a lot of them before but you usually have to be 18, so I have to lie about my age to get in. One time I pretended to be a college student so I could go to an event in San Francisco.”
Schiffmann hopes his project will inspire other teenagers to “create cool stuff”. He has already given talks about it by video call to students in Jamaica and Mexico. “I didn’t go to college to do what I do,” he says. “All I did was watch YouTube videos. Now I’ve created something that helps millions of people around the world. Anyone can do it.”
A six-year-old boy with spina bifida has raised £87,000 (more than $107,000) for the NHS by walking 10m being inspired by Captain Tom Moore’s heroic efforts.
Frank Mills, from Victoria Park, Bristol, walked the 10m-stretch on the pavement in front of his house with the aid of a frame to show his support for healthcare workers. He had originally aimed to raise £99 over the weekend to match Captain Tom’s age after seeing the elderly gentleman walk 100 laps outside his Bedfordshire home - but Frank has since seen his total skyrocket.
Frank, who has spina bifida, a condition in which a baby’s spine does not develop properly in the womb, only began walking 18 months ago and struggles to complete even short distances. His story went viral after being posted on Facebook, with more and more people donating to the rising figure each day. Frank now wants to try and walk the 10m every day.
Mum Janet said Frank struck upon the idea four weeks into the lockdown after watching Captain Tom. She said: ‘Frank just said: “I want to do that!”. So we grabbed hold of that magic moment of motivation and we took his walker outside for him. [We] chalked out ten metres on the pavement with a start and finish line and two metre “you can do it!” markers.
‘Frank’s enthusiasm was not just surprising but invigorating and as he shouted at one of our neighbours to sponsor him, we thought why not? Maybe we could get some friends and family to support Frank. We quickly put something up on JustGiving and shared the link on Facebook, and from that moment it took off! We cannot believe how people are responding’.
Frank had originally aimed to raise £99. So far he has raised £87,000.
As well as having spina bifida, brave Frank was born extremely prematurely - at just under 25 weeks - and spent nearly five months in hospital. Janet and dad Tony say they are extremely grateful for the work of the NHS with their son - hailing their ‘amazing care and dedication’. The family now want to show their enormous gratitude to the service by supporting its charities.
Tony said: ‘We have called this challenge Frank’s Finish Line Fundraiser! At a time of great national anxiety, Captain Tom has given us a really good news story when we desperately needed one, especially inspiring our little lad Frank. Like a lot of people, we have responded to Tom because he’s simply done what he could and is supporting a great cause, so dear to our nation’s hearts at this crazy time’.
He added: ‘So many friends and neighbours have encouraged Frank, it’s been incredible! Folk have been so generous, especially at a time when people are struggling financially. We would like to thank everyone who has supported Frank from the bottom of our hearts. It restores your faith in humanity.’
You can donate to Frank’s cause on his JustGiving page and the money will go to NHS Charities Together - an umbrella organisation that supports health service charities.