The last nine months—the Long March of 2020—have been a litany of disasters: pandemic coronavirus, uncontrolled wildfires, punishing hurricanes and a derecho, paramilitary violence at protests for racial justice. But amid all that, amid a smog of disinformation hovering above it all, it’s easy to forget that back in January and February, everyone knew bad stuff was coming, but not what that bad stuff was. A virus was coming out of China and spreading around the world, and while scientists were racing to understand what was going on, a 17-year-old kid from Washington state became one of the first to bring some clarity—to put a name to fear and help to understand it.
Avi Schiffmann was already an avid programmer. He’d built a simple but robust web-scraping tool to pull together sports stats for his high school. In January, when Covid-19 first started spreading—before the disease even had an official name—Schiffmann realized he could help. “There were no other Covid trackers I could find,” he told WIRED senior science writer Megan Molteni today in an interview for the WIRED25 virtual event. “The domain for my website, ‘ncov2019,’ is kind of hard to say and kind of ridiculous, but that was the official name for the virus back then.”
What Schiffmann could find was either hard to read (because it was poorly designed) or hard to understand (because he doesn’t speak Mandarin). “I thought it would be cool to just make a dashboard to track that,” Schiffmann says.
He was right. It was cool. Every movie about a disaster shows government-run crisis command centers with giant screens in front that display 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 the hell was going on—until Schiffmann started scraping data from various national health agency websites. China and South Korea had good ones. The original site took him only a couple of days to build; it was based on the sports tracker. And then his traffic started to spike.
He expanded—to all 195 countries, eventually, plus regional breakdowns within them, where he could find the data. “Every single day, for months and months, there were new countries getting infected. So those were new web scrapers. Things were changing format,” Schiffmann says. “Back in March, every day was something new.” A self-proclaimed bad student, he started getting scolded by his teachers for working on the site instead of paying attention in class.
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All of which means now it’s time to turn to quantifying another potential disaster. Schiffmann tells Molteni that his next project, debuting in a couple of days, will gather and make understandable 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. “If you go to the campaign websites of Trump or Biden, it’s really hard to find the info you want.” Schiffmann says his site will dive deeper into policies and even budget proposals, rather than offering just (as he says) a couple of quotes. And, like his Covid tracker, it’ll be “done in an interesting way that doesn’t look like a boring government web page.”
Since voter turnout among young people tends to be quite low (though the number of 18- to 29-year-olds voting did increase by 79 percent from 2014 to 2018), better information can only help.
But … wait. Will Schiffmann even be old enough to vote in November?
“I will, actually. I’ll turn 18 October 26, so I’m pretty excited about that,” he says. “I just barely make the cut.” That’s good news; the fight for democracy and knowledge needs all the soldiers it can get.
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