Sometimes in life, really good things begin with brunch with friends. That’s what happened for Jason Li, a senior at the University of California-Berkeley. It was at a brunch in Berkeley on February 29 when the computer science and business major and his friends discussed the growing seriousness of Coronavirus. While not yet widespread in the U.S., the threat was growing. And rumors and misinformation were beginning to swirl.
“There were rumors that school would probably close down for a period of time,” Li recalls. “But at that point in time, (President) Trump was still saying everything was fine and it was probably like the flu.”
But Li, a Chinese native who went to high school in Singapore had done his own research on the virus. He knew it was an entirely different beast than the common flu — mainly from the way it could spread and the seriousness of the respiratory symptoms, he says.
“So I wanted to do something for the public just to raise awareness,” Li says. “For people to protect themselves, they have to have information. Information about if it’s around, can I travel? Or if it’s not around, is it safe for me? What are the numbers like around the U.S.? Individuals have to assess risk and they can’t do so without data.”
THE CORONAVIRUS-TRACKING SITE IS BORN
The next day, Li convened a meeting with members of his startup team, LoopChat — a privacy-oriented groupchat platform with its sights set on disrupting big social media like Facebook. On that Sunday, Li and the LoopChat team hashed out a plan for a website and mobile app that would track the Coronavirus and provide very frequent updates. They decided to call it LiveCoronaUpdates.org. At the heart, Li says the team wanted the platform to be the most accurate resource for the general public. “We wanted to make sure we were reporting facts, not figments of our imaginations,” Li says. By the end of the day, the team decided what the site would look like, which information it should have, and where that information should come from. On Monday they began building the website and by Tuesday night, March 3, the site and mobile app were running.
Li says it started with about six team members on three-hour rotations scouring local government websites and news outlets. At that point, confirmed cases of the virus were moving slowly and local news stations were usually the quickest to report new cases. But then as the spread of the virus sped up, Li says the team switched to scouring local government sites as well as state-level Center for Disease Control (CDC) sites. “It was pretty hard to keep track,” Li says. Now, each team member spends a three-hour shift each day tracking feeders from CDC and other sites and merging it to their own.
As of Friday, March 20th, the site had already had 400,000 page views, Li says. The platform is mobile-heavy as Li says about 80% of their traffic comes from mobile phones. People can subscribe to receive SMS messages, which go out each night with a daily report.
THE BIGGEST LESSON? ‘CORONAVIRUS CASES ARE RISING AT AN ALARMING RATE’
As for what he’s learned from the project, Li says is mainly just how “alarming” the spread of the virus has been.
“The Coronavirus cases are rising at an alarming rate. It’s even more alarming when I compare the numbers to China,” Li says, noting he has been staying ab home besides when he needs to get groceries. “Because some people don’t seem to be concerned about the virus. And there is a lot of misinformation being spread around. People are starting to understand but the rates in which the cases are rising are still very alarming.”