Florida Data Scientist Says She Was Fired for Not Changing COVID-19 Stats

Rebekah Jones

Facebook/Florida Department of Health Rebekah Jones

Rebekah Jones, a Florida data scientist, has said that she was fired for not changing COVID-19 stats so the data would look more favorable for reopening the state. In a separate message, however, she said that some of her comments were misinterpreted. The Florida governor is disputing her claims, saying she was fired for insubordination and that she’s facing unrelated criminal charges. Jones, meanwhile, is raising money for her parents after their home was destroyed by a tornado in April. Here’s what you need to know about Jones and what is happening.


1. Jones Told a Local News Station that She Was Removed for Not Changing Data to ‘Drum Up Support’ for Reopening

Florida Department of Health

Rebekah Jones was the manager of the Florida Department of Healths’ Geographic Information System team, NPR reported. As part of her job, she helped lead the team that created the dashboard of COVID-19 statistics for the state, called “Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard.” You can see a screenshot of the dashboard above or see the live dashboard here.

Syracuse University reported that Jones built Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance dashboard. She told the university: “I started from scratch and decided what I thought was important. I really wanted people to be able to quickly, easily and clearly understand what the numbers are in our state.”

On April 20, Dr. Deborah Birx praised the dashboard, saying: “This is how we have to inform the American public, and this is where the American public will develop confidence in each of their counties and local governments.”

But later in an email in May, Jones told a group of subscribers to the COVID-19 updates that she and her office would not be managing the dashboard any longer, as she had been removed from that position.

Jones told CBS 12 in an email that she was let go because she wouldn’t “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” She said after she refused to censor data, she was removed. So far, CBS 12 appears to be the only publication that she made that specific comment to.

The Florida dashboard includes a count for total cases, Florida residents testing positive, hospitalizations, and deaths. The chart has a Florida map updated each day at 11 a.m. Eastern and charts showing recent data for Florida residents over the last 30 days. The charts include new cases of residents per day and resident deaths per day. The dashboard also has tabs for showing percent positive for laboratory testing, cases by county and ZIP code, and other health metrics.

Jones had objected to removing records that listed symptoms or positive test results before they were officially announced, Tampa Bay Times reported after reviewing internal emails. The day before she was removed, reporters had asked about an “EventDate” field on the dashboard that showed when people first had symptoms or positive test results. Some of those dates were as early as January 1, prior to the first confirmed cases in March. The column with the data was later removed on the afternoon of May 4 and didn’t reappear until the evening of May 5, the Tampa Bay Times shared.

Internal emails showed the IT Director asking Jones on the evening of May 4 to disable the ability to export data from dashboard files, Tampa Bay Times reported.

The Sun-Sentinel reported that Jones responded to the email, writing: “I’m not pulling our primary resource for coronavirus data because he wants to stick it to journalists and make them copy and paste from the tables in the pdfs. If it’s in the dashboard, it’s public. Period. There is no way around that… We have gained national — no, international — notoriety for being the best state in the country with data transparency. I’m not trashing all of that work and progress because he got asked a few questions by reporters — which I read and were completely fair and legitimate questions that should have been asked.”

Another email from the IT Director cited a directive from Dr. Carina Blackmore, Division of Disease Control and Health Protection director, Tampa Bay Times reported. The email noted: “We need to ensure that dates (date fields) in all objects match their counterpart on the PDF line list published.” The PDF did not have the list of when symptoms were first reported.

Jones said it was the wrong call, but complied. She was later told to re-enable the data. It was after this that she was removed. In an email to subscribers, she said that management of the dashboard was changed for “reasons beyond my division’s control,” HuffPost reported.

She wrote in her email to subscribers: “As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it… They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data.”


2. Jones Said She Was Offered a Settlement & Later Wrote that Some of Her Comments Were Misinterpreted & She Was Surprised by the Controversy

Facebook

Jones said she was offered a settlement and a chance to resign instead of being fired, Tampa Bay Times reported.

In an email to her supervisor on a Saturday, the day after she wrote the COVID-19 subscribers list, Jones said that some of her comments had been misinterpreted, Tampa Bay Times reported.

She told the Sun-Sentinel that she was surprised by how controversial her email had been. She said when she sent the mass email, she was tired and had been working long hours.

In an email she sent to the IT Director, which the Sun-Sentinel obtained, she wrote: “What I meant when I said don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away, and that it was ridiculous that I managed to do it in the first place, and that I was tired and needed a break from working two months straight and am finally taking a vacation. Is this one of those stupid things I shouldn’t have said?”

But at another point, she told CBS 12 that she was removed when she wouldn’t “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” It’s not clear when she told CBS 12 this compared to when she told the Sun-Sentinel that she was surprised by the controversy.


3. The Florida Governor Said She Was Dismissed for Insubordination

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis disputed the allegations from Jones in a press conference.

DeSantis said: “She’s not a data scientist. She’s somebody that’s got a degree in journalism, communication, and geography. She is not involved in collating any data, she does not have the expertise to do that, she is not an epidemiologist. She is not the chief architect of our web portal, that is another false statement… She was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data. So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors…and so she was dismissed because of that and because of a bunch of different reasons…”

In a statement, the governor’s office said, in part:

Rebekah Jones’ duties were to display data obtained by the Department’s epidemiological staff. The team that created the graphics on the dashboard, which was made up by multiple people, received data that was provided by subject matter experts, including Senior Epidemiologists, Surveillance Epidemiologists, and a Senior Database Analyst.

Rebekah 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. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.

Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19. Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the Department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.

Helen Aguirre Ferre, Communications Director for DeSantis, told the Miami Herald: “Rebekah 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. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.”

Syracuse University reported that Jones has a dual degree in geography and journalism. She has a master’s degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University, MSN reported.

Jones said she designed the dashboard while they were short-staffed, working with GIS mapping software and coding much of it herself. On March 30, her dashboard had already received 44.7 million views from unique visitors.

Jones first joined the Florida Department of Health in September 2018. She was hired as a GIS analyst, Syracuse University reported. In November 2019, she was promoted to GIS manager.


4. DeSantis Said Jones Is Facing ‘Criminal Charges’ for Cyber Stalking & Harassment

In a press conference, DeSantis said that Jones was under “active criminal charges” connected to cyberstalking.

He said: “Come to find out, she’s also under active criminal charges in the state of Florida. She’s being charged with cyber stalking and cyber sexual harassment. So I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on, because this was many months ago. I have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. So her supervisor dismissed her because of a lot of those reasons and it was a totally valid way, but she should have been dismissed long before that.”

The Miami Herald reported that the stalking charges, which will go to trial next month, were related to a romantic relationship with a former student at Florida State University, where she was pursuing a doctorate in geography.

WEARTV reported that a Tallahassee police report showed a man claimed he was a victim of revenge porn by Jones in June 2019. He told police she posted a website with naked pictures of him, sharing it with family and colleagues.


5. Jones’ Home Was Flooded by Hurricane Katrina & Her Parents’ Home in Mississippi Was Destroyed by a Tornado Last Month

GoFundMe

Jones was living in southern Mississippi when her town was hit by Hurricane Katrina when she was only 16, Syracuse University reported. Her home was flooded and some family members from New Orleans died.

She told Syracuse University in an interview about the Florida dashboard in March: “Having been a kid who went through Katrina and seeing some things that may not have been appropriate for a 16-year-old, I understand how important it is to have effective leaders during a crisis. I believe I can be one of those effective leaders and feel a duty to do so.”

Jones said she studied journalism to give a “voice to the voiceless,” and for a time was a features editor and writer for the university’s paper, The Daily Orange. She said that after she had her son and was a single mom, she wanted to be part of the solution and not just write about what was happening. She graduated cum Claude and was a geospatial specialist for the Lousiana Sea Grant for a time.

Then on April 12, her parents’ home was destroyed by a tornado in Mississippi, MSN reported. Her dad, a truck driver, was in Texas and her mother was in the state but wasn’t home when the storm hit.

A GoFundMe page set up by Jones on behalf of her parents reads:

On April 12, a series of tornadoes destroyed hundreds of homes across the US Southeast. My parents live in the path of one such tornado. Their house was destroyed – only part of the kitchen of their two- story, brick and hardwood home still stands. Every memory in that house, whether lived or kept in photos, is gone. Most of the furniture still hasn’t been found, likely dumped in a field somewhere beyond reach. A lifetime of books, photo albums, keepsakes, clothes, blankets… everything we need but rarely think about is gone. My dad is a truck driver and wasn’t home when the storm hit. My mom was on her way to visit my sister when the storm ripped their house from the ground. My parents are people who worked their entire lives to give their kids at a better shot than they were ever given. They couldn’t even afford to buy their house until just a few years ago. Now it’s gone and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what insurance will pay for, if they pay for much at all. Please help us as they try to rebuild their lives and replace the most basic of necessities. They’re good people who work hard and never ask to be rewarded for it. Let’s help them out.

On her webpage, Jones shared more information about herself, writing:

I am now a vegetarian, speak in spatial and temporal scales, and am a GIS connoisseur.  Above all, I like to think discovering geography was like finding religion for me. It changed the core of who I am. LSU had an equally significant impact, but in other, more deeply personal ways. I learned a lot about inequality, injustice and the power of ignorance.

Going into my doctoral studies at Florida State University, I will always be dedicated to truth and justice- the two pillars of my two majors. I hope to serve as a scientist who helps us understand the world a little bit better, so that we can be better caretakers of this beautiful, fragile and resilient planet.

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