Seattle teen builds new website to aid Ukrainian refugees, two years after COVID-19 site took off

Avi Schiffmann. (Instagram photo via @avischiffmann)

Avi Schiffmann can’t help but help.

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

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

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

Currently taking some time off after a year of studies at Harvard University, Schiffmann was attending a rally in support of Ukraine in San Diego when he decided he had the skills to contribute more effectively. He hasn’t been impressed by the sites run by refugee aid organizations or government entities.

On Feb. 27 he tweeted his idea to build a site to match Ukrainian refugees with hosts in neighboring countries. He got out of bed 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 Burstein, a web developer at Harvard.

“We literally worked for three days straight,” Schiffmann said. “There was nothing else I was doing except for working on the website.”

On Wednesday, it launched.

The site is a public bulletin, purposefully built to be as simple to use and digest as possible, and Schiffmann stressed that privacy and security were a top priority. The site translates into native languages, such as Ukrainian or Polish, based on a device’s settings. Hosts can sign up to offer space and refugees can search for nearest available hosts.

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

The home page for Ukraine Take Shelter. (Ukraine Take Shelter Image)

NPR reported that 1 million refugees have already fled across Ukraine’s borders since the invasion. The BBC tracked where some of them are going, and in Washington state, lawmakers set aside $20 million to help resettle any who end up in the state.

Schiffmann plans to start contacting Polish news outlets to try to spread the word about his site.

If it’s anything like his COVID-19 tracker, the web traffic will be significant.

Schiffmann started in early January 2020 when he was still a junior at Mercer Island High School. At the time there were fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and it hadn’t yet spread outside of China.

He went on to attract international attention and many millions of visitors and page views with a mostly automated site built to track total confirmed cases, total deaths, countries infected and more. He also built sites to track civil unrest in the U.S. in the summer of 2020 as well as one for the presidential election.

‘There’s always a way you can use technology or any kind of skill you have to do something great.’

“I’ve given many talks where I’m supposed to inspire high school teenagers, and I keep saying, ‘There’s always something happening around the world,” Schiffmann said. “There’s always a way you can use technology or any kind of skill you have to do something great.’”

Schiffmann, who had his own bout with COVID-19, was planning to update that site’s user interface, take care of some glitches and add some new features.

“I just kind of neglected it for a while. I got really burned out from that site,” he said. “I just did not think that the pandemic would last two years like this.”

Schiffmann said he’s been primarily focused on what he’s going to do with his life and what types of platforms or companies he can create.

He’s been asking himself, “What does it take to be a great leader? What do great ideas really mean?”

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