PRINT VERSION: Florida scientist says she was fired for ‘refusing to manipulate’ COVID-19 data

Rebekah Jones is the architect of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard.

The scientist who created Florida’s COVID-19 data portal wasn’t just removed from her position May 5, she was fired Monday by the Department of Health, she said, for refusing to manipulate data.

Rebekah Jones said in an email to Florida Today that she single-handedly created two applications in two languages, four dashboards, six unique maps with layers of data functionality for 32 variables covering a half a million lines of data. Her objective was to create a way for Floridians and researchers to see what the COVID-19 situation was in real time.

Then, she was dismissed.

Previously:As Florida reopens, COVID-19 data chief gets sidelined, and researchers cry foul

“I worked on it alone, sixteen hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened I’ll probably never get paid for,” she wrote in an email, confirming that she had been fired from her job as Geographic Information Systems manager for the Florida Department of Health.

After Florida Today reported Jones’ removal from her position in charge of the COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard she created, she said she was fired because she was ordered to censor some data but refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen,” as reported by CBS-12 in West Palm Beach.

She provided no further details.

In an email Friday to researchers and other data users, Jones warned that changes were probably coming to the accessibility and transparency of the dashboard data.

“They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data,” she wrote.

Researchers who saw the email reacted with shock and dismay, suggesting Gov. Ron De Santis’ government was censoring information tosupport the case for reopening Florida.

Lucky Tran, a biologist and public health communicator at Columbia University, said on Twitter, “When politicians censor scientists and manipulate the numbers, the rest of us suffer.”

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., tweeted, “Floridians will not feel safe in opening up without transparency.”

DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, issued a statement to the Miami Herald: “The Florida COVID-19 Dashboard was created by the Geographic Information System (GIS) team in the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection at the Florida Department of Health. Although Rebekah Jones is no longer involved, the GIS team continues to manage and update the Dashboard providing accurate and important information that is publicly accessible.”

Emails from Jones through April show that she responded to feedback from researchers in a bid to improve and update the dashboard. She told Florida Today that she alone was responsible for “every line of code.”

In an email May 5 in which she announced the launch of a Spanish-language version of the dashboard, Jones wrote, “Please be patient as we get all this connected and running smoothly, and do let me know if you see any errors.” It was sent the same day she was removed from her role managing the dashboard.

For 60 days, Jones said, she never took a day off, not even when a tornado leveled her parents’ home April 12 in southeast Mississippi. A GoFundMe page was set up to help her family recover. Her mother survived, and her father, a truck driver, was in Texas at the time.

“Sorry if I’ve been a little slow to respond these last few days,” she wrote to data users in an email three days later, reporting updates on how data was organized and the inclusion of county-level racial data.

Jones provided detailed updates in emails every few days, often technical and responsive to user feedback. She was working on making historical data more accessible to users when she was dismissed.

On April 25, Jones explained why the data set would go from morning and evening daily updates to just once per day.

“We’re gearing up to provide more analytics and data, and would not be able to process the full dataset twice daily with the staff we have,” she wrote. “We have been directed to start tracking data related to reopening, and it is consuming a lot of staff hours on very short notice.”

Days later, she was removed from the position.

Jones had worked with the Department of Health as a geospatial analyst, then a Geographic Information System manager since obtaining her doctorate in geography from Florida State University in 2018.

She holds a master’s degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University and a bachelor’s in journalism and geography from Syracuse University.

The Florida Department of Health did not reply to a request for comment.

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for Florida Today. Contact him at 321-355-8144, or asassoon@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @alemzs

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