Interview'When I see a need, I develop a platform'

How a young Harvard dropout and friends are set to level-up global humanitarian aid

The ‘whiz kid’ who developed the world’s first COVID-tracking site is ramping up his organization, Internet Activism, and helping victims of Turkey’s earthquake and Ukraine’s war

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Avi Schiffman (right) with Internet Activism team members (from left): Will Depue, Anant Sinha, and Krish Shah. Team member Adrian Gri not pictured. (Courtesy of Avi Schiffman)
Avi Schiffman (right) with Internet Activism team members (from left): Will Depue, Anant Sinha, and Krish Shah. Team member Adrian Gri not pictured. (Courtesy of Avi Schiffman)

It took Avi Schiffmann only 48 hours after a massive earthquake hit Turkey and neighboring Syria on February 6, 2023, to launch TakeShelter.org, a website aimed at connecting the 1.5 million left homeless with people willing to host them.

This wasn’t the first time the 20-year-old Schiffmann used technology to react quickly to a humanitarian crisis. Exactly a year ago, he built a similar site, UkraineTakeShelter.com, to help the millions of refugees streaming out of Ukraine following the Russian invasion beginning February 24, 2022.

And in late 2019, he created nCoV2019.live, a live dashboard tracking the spread of the pandemic in real-time across the world. The website launched at just 51 cases, before almost anyone was aware of the deadly virus. Costing less than $1,000 to make, the site ultimately had more than 600 million users, according to Schiffmann.

“When I see a need, I develop a platform,” Schiffmann said.

He acts fast. Schiffmann and a Harvard University classmate wrote the code for and distributed UkraineTakeShelter.com in just 72 hours. In the six months that the site was operational, he estimates it has succeeded in helping more than 100,000 refugees find temporary shelter in Europe and North America.

The new site that has begun aiding those left unhoused due to the recent catastrophic earthquake was generated even more quickly.

“We were fortunate to be able to just reskin the Ukraine site for the Turkey one in two days,” Schiffmann said.

Schiffmann spoke with The Times of Israel late last week from his parents’ home in Seattle a day before moving to San Francisco, where he is setting up a base for his newly registered nonprofit organization, Internet Activism. Having recently gotten off the ground, the organization aims to collaborate with NGOs to develop open-source websites, apps, and general software aimed at providing humanitarian support to those affected when a crisis strikes — be it a natural disaster, a war, a pandemic, political upheaval, or a nationwide baby formula shortage.

People take rest next to a bonfire in the rubble in Hatay, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey’s southeast on February 6, 2023 (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

“We’ve got five team members now. We are all around the same age and we’re from the US, Canada, India, and France,” said Schiffmann, who holds both American and Israeli passports.

According to Schiffmann, the success and reach of UkraineTakeShelter.com and the COVID tracker made him think about moving beyond building individual websites to creating a broad suite of online humanitarian tools that would be uploaded ahead of time and available and active on potentially 5-6 million mobile devices globally when a crisis strikes.

Schiffmann described it as an “all-under-one-roof modern-day emergency toolkit on your phone.”

More people around the world have mobile phones than toilets

“More people around the world have mobile phones than toilets. The first thing that people do in any crisis situation is to look for internet connectivity and somewhere to charge their devices. What we want to create is a humanitarian super-app,” Schiffmann explained.

He has heard responses from people that beyond offering to house, donating, or doing general volunteering, they would also like to use their professional skills to help those in need. This might become a feature of what he hopes to create.

Ukrainian evacuees line up as they wait for further transport at the Medyka border crossing, after they crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border, southeastern Poland, on March 29, 2022. (Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP)

Schiffmann and his team are also working on a messaging app that works offline, using Bluetooth networks that would allow people to communicate in disaster situations or bypass filters or internet shutdowns used by governments to quash communications among protesters or political opponents.

“The iPhone’s Bluetooth range is 33 feet now. Using a Bluetooth mesh network you can surf the net or send texts using other devices’ Bluetooth hotspots,” Schiffmann said.

Since the Internet Activism engineers use open-source code, all are invited to help in the work via Github or Discord.

I am deep into running Internet Activism and I can’t see myself sitting in a classroom right now

When The Times of Israel last spoke with Schiffmann in March 2022, he was taking a break from his first year at Harvard after just one semester. So far, he hasn’t gone back.

“I want to be in school — and my mom really wants me there — but I am deep into running Internet Activism and I can’t see myself sitting in a classroom right now,” Schiffmann said.

Avi Schiffman (Courtesy)

The other team members feel the same way. Vice president Anant Sinha, 21, believes that “[Internet Activism’s] tools will change the world.”

Engineer Krish Shah, 20, said he is moved by the extent of the impact that a website like TakeShelter.com can have.

“I have been working on nonprofits since I was 13, but I felt like I could only help a limited number of people. This is different,” he said.

As president of the organization, Schiffmann is focused on fundraising and making plans for scaling up and distribution. He has been meeting with potential funders and writing grants. Internet Activism’s financial model also involves developing software for humanitarian and rescue organizations.

“We are charging for this, and this will help support our organization. These organizations really want these tools. They are really large and not as nimble as we are. They don’t employ developers or understand open AI,” Schiffmann said.

Screenshot of a verification step of TakeShelter.com app (Courtesy of Avi Schiffman)

To bridge between tech companies and the humanitarian world, Schiffmann is tapping tech experts and former leaders from groups such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders as advisers.

“At this point, we need to move forward. We should not be run by just a couple of college students anymore,” Schiffmann said.

It helps that, despite his young age, he is already a known quantity, having garnered media coverage and won the 2020 Webby Person of the Year Award in recognition of his work on the COVID tracking website.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and one of the lead members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, lauded Schiffmann as he presented him with the award.

“Schiffmann’s tracking tool has been an invaluable resource that sounded the alarm on the virus and its spread, notably calling attention to its severity before it was broadly recognized… Schiffmann has helped people around the globe understand Covid-19 and the necessity to upgrade current healthcare systems and the importance of measures to flatten the curve,” Fauci said.

Screenshot of a verification step of TakeShelter.com app (Courtesy of Avi Schiffman)

The Syrian Emergency Task Force is assisting in raising awareness for TakeShelter.com as the website aims to help earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria find temporary housing. Nonetheless, it has been slower to take off than the Ukraine one a year ago. Schiffmann attributes this to the earthquake disaster being more local in scope and having a shorter news cycle than the war in Ukraine. Notably, relatively few individuals and families are offering shelter. Most of the listings have been posted by community centers, schools, hotels, and the like.

When UkraineTakeShelter.org came online a year ago, some were reluctant to share the link or encourage refugees to seek accommodation through it for fear of human trafficking and other abuses. Schiffmann contended that there were no issues with security, especially since he acted quickly to add features including identity verification requiring the scanning of government-issued documents and facial recognition. All messages are routed through the site, the team monitors listings, and all information is stored in the event local authorities will need to be contacted. The site provides clear instructions to shelter seekers on how to keep safe.

Schiffmann is determined to create the humanitarian super-app he envisions. A story he heard from a Ukrainian family that found shelter at a holiday home in France owned by a British woman convinced him of the necessity to give people disaster-response tools at the touch of a finger.

The family was hiding in their Kharkiv basement. Their pleas for help to embassies and various organizations went unanswered.

“No one helped them, but through UkraineTakeShelter.com, they took matters into their own hands and were able to connect with a host and make their way across Europe. Three days after arriving at the holiday home in France, their home in Kharkiv was bombed and destroyed by the Russians,” Schiffmann said.

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