Seattle teenager builds new website to help Ukrainian refugees, two years after COVID-19 site launched

Avi Schiffman. (Instagram photo via @avischiffmann)

Avi Schiffmann can’t help but help.

More than two years after launching a website to track the most recent data related to the global spread of the coronavirus, the 19-year-old from the Seattle area is turning his attention to the raging conflict in Ukraine.

Schiffmann has launched a new website called Ukraine Take Shelter, with the aim of helping dozens of refugees affected by the week-long Russian invasion find potential safe spaces to stay in neighboring countries and elsewhere.

“We’ve all been watching this for a while. I really didn’t think it was going to escalate this far,” Schiffmann told GeekWire by phone Thursday. “I had absolutely no intention of creating a website for this.”

Currently on leave after a year at Harvard University, Schiffmann was attending a Ukraine support rally in San Diego when he decided he had the skills to contribute more effectively. He was not impressed with sites run by refugee aid organizations or government entities.

On February 27, he tweeted his idea build a site to connect Ukrainian refugees with hosts in neighboring countries. He got up that night and started working on it and within 24 hours he tweeted again that it was 90% built. Schiffmann enlisted the help of his friend Marco Bursteinweb developer at Harvard.

“We literally worked for three days straight,” Schiffmann said. “I didn’t do anything but work on the website.”

On Wednesday it was launched.

The site is a public bulletin board, deliberately designed to be as easy to use and digest as possible, and Schiffmann stressed that privacy and security are a top priority. The site translates into native languages, such as Ukrainian or Polish, depending on the device settings. Hosts can register to offer space and refugees can search for the nearest available hosts.

“The interest of the website is simply to connect [hosts] to refugees, to make that discoverability even possible in the first place. And make it really easy,” Schiffmann said, adding that other communications between parties can be facilitated through services such as WhatsApp.

The homepage of Ukraine Take Shelter. (Image of refuge in Ukraine)

NPR reported that one million refugees have already crossed into Ukraine since the invasion. The BBC has been tracking where some of them are going, and in Washington state lawmakers have set aside $20 million to help resettle everyone who ends up in the state.

Schiffmann plans to start contacting the Polish media to try to publicize his site.

If it sounds like its COVID-19 tracker, web traffic will be heavy.

Schiffmann started in early January 2020 while still a junior at Mercer Island High School. At the time, there were fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and it had yet to spread outside of China.

It then garnered international attention and several million visitors and page views with a mostly automated site designed to track total confirmed cases, total deaths, infected countries and more. He also built sites to track civil unrest in the United States in the summer of 2020 as well as one for the presidential election.

“There’s always a way to use technology or whatever kind of skill you have to do something great.”

“I’ve given a lot of talks where I’m supposed to inspire high school teenagers, and I keep saying, ‘There’s always something going on in the world,'” Schiffmann said. to use technology or whatever kind of skill you have to do something great.”

Schiffmann, who has had his own battle with COVID-19, planned to update this site’s user interface, fix some issues, and add new features.

“I just kind of neglected him for a while. I got really exhausted because of this site,” he said. “I just didn’t think the pandemic would last two years like this.”

Schiffmann said his main focus was on what he was going to do with his life and what kinds of platforms or businesses he could build.

He wonders, “What does it take to be a great leader? What do good ideas really mean? »

If the last two years and the projects under his belt are any indication, Schiffmann is already finding the answers.

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