It’s amazing the positive impact a closing door can have.
Typically something that symbolizes decreased opportunity, the end of the road, or time running out, that closing door can easily be interpreted as a setback. But, many have learned to leverage a shuttering as more of a reset or turning of a page to a new chapter—and not simply as the closing of the entire book.
For instance, schools have shut down; that’s many doors that have closed indefinitely.
And while the initial shock of “how is my student going to learn?” was scary, parents are now doing what they do best—solving problems, and finding opportunities for their children in a time of need.
And many have been successful in their searches, finding new experiences - from learning tools to online private tutoring - that are helping their kids thrive; environments they may have never explored had those school doors never closed.
On a deeper level, this pandemic keeps taking, and taking; closing more and more doors. There aren’t many people who haven’t had something taken from them through all of this; from personal freedoms, to health, to job security.
I’ve been impacted, and many of you reading this have been impacted.
But with all that has been taken, the one thing that has been given is the opportunity for people to step up and help. To find and create new resources that are desperately needed. Like factories that were originally built to create clothing or produce alcohol that are now doing a complete 180 to manufacture much-needed masks and hand sanitizers.
And it’s not just physical goods that have been scarce. It’s information.
Answers. Data. All things the general public is desperately seeking as we all try and wrap our heads around this.
Which brings us to Avi Schiffmann.
Hundreds of millions of visitors later, the site stands out as a primary source for those wanting to learn more about deaths, number of cases, and importantly, the number of people who have recovered, along with an interactive map and other real-time info. The site refreshes with new data every minute or so thanks to web scraping.
While Avi’s story is cool enough in itself, we here at iD Tech have even a deeper-rooted interest—Avi is a former iD Tech camper, attending three different sessions over a couple of summers at our UW Seattle location.
In the midst of the excitement and countless interview requests, Avi was generous enough to carve out some time to speak with us about his newfound fame and future site plans.
After recounting his first experience taking a Python class as an overnighter staying in the dorms at UW, Avi’s memories quickly came rushing back.
Probably one of my favorite memories—I actually have so many memories...
It was then that Avi recalled the fun he and his friends all had playing classic camp games like Mafia and Team Fortress 2, summarizing his flashbacks with this:
I met a lot of interesting people there, and it was fun—I only have good things to say about iD Tech. I’m older now, but I’d highly recommend it to anyone.
From there, we dove into more back and forth, asking Avi more specific questions about his time at camp, and of course, how he went about building his extremely popular and useful website.
iD: Just hearing you describe the fun of camp...that’s one of the most awesome things about iD Tech...
Yeah I had a blast. Definitely my favorite camp I’ve ever gone to, and I haven’t gone to camp in a long time...But I had a lot of fun. It was a good experience.
iD: After three summers, what kept you coming back to camp?
I thought the courses were really interesting...I remember I had an interesting instructor for something called Autodesk Maya, which was a 3D Modeling program that I knew a little bit about before, and I got a lot better at it, and then I think in middle school I did freelance 3D modeling—you can even find a portfolio I have somewhere online...
iD: Whoa! Was this just after camp on your own time?
Yeah, I did a lot of freelance 3D modeling, so I made watches, video game things; that was pretty fun. I made a little bit of money doing that, but that was a while ago...
iD: Over the years you’ve developed quite a diverse portfolio of technical skills, which is pretty awesome!
Yeah I mean I know practically a lot of things, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten into more things like Machine Learning, and stuff like that...
But iD Tech was really interesting because you can learn a lot more when you have a teacher you can talk to instead of just watching videos online…
iD: What role, if any, would you say iD Tech had in your programming journey?
iD Tech was really cool just to be around other people that liked to do programming, because at my school I know nobody that did programming…
But at iD Tech it was interesting because there were a lot of people that were similar to me, that knew a lot of interesting programming stuff - that they kind of taught themselves - so that was pretty cool to be around.
Just the whole setting was just cool; the fact that we had video game tournaments with games that I liked to play was something I couldn’t find in other places.
So definitely the camp to go to if you like computers.
iD: Nice. And what was your process of redesigning the website, and getting it to the version that is online now?
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback through emails, like for example the “recovered number,” that didn’t used to be there for a long time, but I got some emails saying the site was overly negative. So I thought it would be cool to showcase how many people have recovered for individual countries, and total recoveries because that gives people a lot more hope…
iD: That’s really cool that you’re implementing viewer feedback like that...Do you know how many people are accessing the site currently?
So as of right now, there are about 250 million total visitors…and also at any given point, there’s at least 30K people on the site, which is a lot of traffic.
So, it’s interesting to learn how to maintain such a high traffic website, which is not easy at all; there’s a lot of maintenance that goes into this; that's the most stressful thing...
But also what’s interesting about the traffic is that only about half of it is from the United States, so a lot of it is international; I mean, the majority of it is basically, so every single day I get at least one visitor from every single country on the entire planet—even Greenland, the Congo, everywhere. It’s interesting....you can pick literally any country in the entire planet and I have at least a thousand visitors from there, which is really cool.
iD: Why do you think this website is so appealing and so in demand right now?
I just think that people want the information. I’m just providing the raw data, and people can do whatever they want with it.
And I started this a long time ago, before anyone else had—and I think especially in 2020 it’s a big deal to get accurate information this easily. I mean there is so much fake news and misinformation that spreads around the internet, and sometimes it’s just really hard to get what you want and that's exactly what I’m providing…
I think that’s a big reason why people come to the website, just because it’s not trying to be something else I guess—it’s just displaying the most up to date information, and people want that and I guess that’s why people come to my site.
iD: Cool! What language or platform did you use to create the website?
To be honest...it’s pretty simple, but it’s actually really good that that’s the way it works in terms of the way I programmed it...
I mean, the way I programmed it is not maybe the industry standard; I kind of did my own thing, but I think I did it really well, and it works amazing…
iD: Wow, and hearing you describe all of the different components; all the moving parts that you’ve woven together to create this website...I’d love to know what you’ve learned as part of the process in creating this, or were there any unexpected hiccups along the way that you had to implement problem-solving to fix?
...I think it’s a lot of self-motivation to continue running the site. I’ve stayed up all night just trying to get things to work...
There’s a lot of pressure on me as well….the site is used by so, so many people I mean everywhere from clinics in Africa, to famous people in the United States; they’re all relying on my website. So the second something doesn’t work, I get a gazillion emails—even if I’m sleeping, people in Africa are awake, so they’re all visiting my website….
So, it’s a lot of things that you can’t learn working on something simple and small. This isn’t something you can learn in school really; how to manage something like this just cause there are so many unexpected things that happen.
iD: We’d love to know what your future plans are? You’re a junior in high school, are you planning on going to college?
I do plan to take a gap year or two, because I do a lot of computer coding competitions; they’re called hackathons….
And they’re very interesting because you learn how to work in high-stakes environments with a team that you just meet there, and you make really interesting things, and most of them are “tech for good” with a lot of really interesting ideas you can come up with...and I’m also pretty good at them; I’ve won a lot of them.
They’re all over the world...they’re in Tokyo, Amsterdam, everywhere, so I was going to take a gap year and just travel going to those hackathons around the world...
I just want to continue making really awesome things.
I’d like to become the next Avi Schiffmann; I wanna make my own stuff. You know, the next Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going to make a social network, I want to make my own thing—I just want to make tons of really cool stuff...
I didn't really expect this website to become so big, but now I guess you can say it’s a humanitarian effort; I really like doing positive things for the world with technology, and it’s really cool we’re at the point where technology can be used for so many interesting things...
And if you think about SARS or Ebola there wasn’t a website you could go to that was easily accessible on a smartphone that updated every minute or so—there just wasn’t something like that for SARS, so I think it’s really cool that there are so many interesting things I can do with technology, and I’d like to be at the forefront of something really awesome…
Really, we couldn’t have wrapped things up any better than Avi did.
As Avi’s experience has shown us, those things don’t have to be contained to fun mobile apps or video games. They can be huge, world-impacting programs, and in this case, websites that - as Avi mentions - are just simple and to the point.
There are times for entertainment. There are times to think about how much revenue a site could bring in by capitalizing on its traffic through ads, etc. But there are also times when people need to be as plugged into a situation as humanly possible.
In realizing the existence of this need, Avi has built a wildly-successful website, created with his users’ most pressing needs in mind.