Tension built for days between Florida Department of Health supervisors and the department’s geographic information systems manager before officials showed her the door, permanently pulling her off the coronavirus dashboard that she operated for weeks.
Managers had wanted Rebekah Jones to make certain changes to the public-facing portal. Jones had objected to – and sometimes refused to comply with – what she saw as unethical requests. The department offered to let her resign. Jones declined.
Weeks after she was fired in mid-May, Jones has now found a way to present the state’s coronavirus data exactly the way she wants it: She created a dashboard of her own.
“I wanted to build an application that delivered data and helped people get tested and helped them get resources that they need from their community,” Jones, 30, said of the site that launched Thursday. “And that’s what I ended up building with this new dashboard.”
White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx praised Florida’s official coronavirus dashboard in April as a beacon of transparency. But Jones said the site undercounts the state’s infection total and overcounts the number of people tested – facts that bolstered officials’ decision to start loosening restrictions on the economy in early May, when the state had not met federal guidelines for reopening.
The competing opinions about how to frame Florida’s data underscore the importance of access to accurate information about the virus’s spread as the state continues to lift restrictions on public life. Among other data-related controversies, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, came under heavy scrutiny after Jones first alleged publicly that the health department was manipulating statistics to support his desire to reopen.
The Florida governor’s office and the health department did not respond Friday to an email seeking comment on Jones’s new dashboard. In a previous statement, a spokeswoman for the governor said Jones “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”
Jones’s allegations about other managers’ requests are serious. She claimed that they asked her to delete data showing that some residents tested positive for the coronavirus in January, even though DeSantis assured residents in March that there was no evidence of community spread. Jones also alleged that she was asked to manually change numbers to wrongly make counties appear to have met metrics for reopening.
Despite the differences between the two dashboards, the site that Jones launched Thursday relies on the health department’s data. She said she wrote code that pulls information from various reports on the department’s website and presents the data in a way that she believes adds more context. Her dashboard also incorporates data from hospitals and from a volunteer organization that maps coronavirus testing sites.
On Jones’s dashboard, the number of people tested is significantly lower than the official figure. She said the state’s number is actually a tally of the number of samples taken – not the number of people tested. Her dashboard said Florida had tested 895,947 people as of Friday evening, whereas the state dashboard listed the number of people tested as 1,336,895.
Jones’s death toll is also slightly higher because she counts nonresidents who died while they were in Florida, while the state does not.
The case count on Jones’s dashboard is also lower because it includes people who have tested positive for antibodies, or proteins that indicate that the virus has been in someone’s body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that antibody tests are not foolproof and that a higher percentage of positive results may be incorrect in areas where few people have had the virus.
In Jones’s eyes, the divergences from the state’s data site were necessary.
“If you’re creating something that simply presents a very narrow view of a situation that’s complex and nuanced but affects everybody’s lives, then you’re not enabling them to take action, to take some semblance of control over what they’re going through,” she said of the state health department’s dashboard.
Jones said she plans to keep her dashboard running, from her home in Tallahassee, for as long as it seems to be useful for residents and she can afford to do so. If a vaccine is developed, she said she wants her site to include information about distribution.
The project has been neither easy – Jones said she has been working 12-hour days – nor cheap. To launch the site, Jones said she bought a new computer, upgraded her hard drive and licensed the software that she uses to create the maps. A GoFundMe page had raised nearly $27,000 for her as of Friday evening.
While Jones said she is open to talking with the health department about selling her dashboard to the state, she insisted that she did not launch the project out of spite or revenge.
“It really is because I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and what happened to me, as unfair as it was, and get back to doing what I wanted to do in the first place, which was help people,” she said.