Rebekah Jones, a coronavirus data scientist in Florida, publishes her own dashboard


A few weeks after her layoff in mid-May, Jones has now found a way to present the state coronavirus data exactly as she wants: She has created a dashboard of her own.

“I wanted to create an app that provided data and helped people get tested and helped them get the resources they need from their community,” Jones, 30, said of the site, which was launched Thursday. “That’s what I ended up building with this new dashboard.”

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx hailed the official Coronavirus Dashboard in Florida in April as a beacon of transparency. But Jones said the site underestimates the state’s total infection and outstrends the number of people tested – with official figures reinforcing the decision to begin easing restrictions on the economy in early May, when the state failed to meet federal guidelines for reopening.

Conflicting views on how to frame Florida’s data underscore the importance of accessing accurate information about the spread of the virus as the state continues to lift restrictions on public life. Among other data controversies, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) came under scrutiny after Jones first publicly alleged that the Department of Health was manipulating statistics to support his desire to reopen.

The Florida governor’s office and the Department of Health did not respond Friday to an email requesting comments on Jones’ new dashboard. In an earlier statement, a spokeswoman for the governor said Jones “showed a repeated course of insubordination during his time with the department, including his unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 scoreboard without the input or approval of the epidemiological team or its supervisors.”

Jones’ allegations about requests from other managers are serious. She said they asked her to delete data showing that some residents tested positive for coronavirus in January, although DeSantis assured residents in March that there was no evidence of community spread. Jones also alleged that he was asked to manually change the numbers to ensure that the counties appear to have wrongly met the reopening measures.

Despite the differences between the two dashboards, the site Jones launched Thursday is based on data from the Department of Health. She said she wrote code that draws information from various reports on the department’s website and presents the data in a way that she says adds more context. Its dashboard also incorporates data from hospitals and a voluntary organization that maps coronavirus screening sites.

On Jones’ dashboard, the number of people tested is significantly lower than the official figure. She said the state number is actually a tally of the number of samples taken – not the number of people tested. Its scoreboard said Florida had tested 895,947 people as of Friday night, while the state scoreboard listed the number of people tested as more than 1.3 million.

Jones’ death toll is slightly higher because it includes non-residents who died while they were in Florida, while the state does not. States take a variety of approaches to reporting on non-residents who die there, as well as residents who die outside the state.

The number of cases on Jones’ dashboard is also higher 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 view, discrepancies with the state data site were necessary.

“If you create something that just has a very narrow vision of a situation that is complex and nuanced, but that affects everyone’s life, then you don’t allow them to act, to take some semblance of control over what they’re going through,” she said of the State Health Department dashboard.

Jones said she plans to keep her dashboard running, from her home in Tallahassee, as long as it seems to be useful to residents and she can afford to do so. If a vaccine is developed, she says she wants her site to contain distribution information.

The project was not easy — Jones said she worked 12 hours a day — or cheap. To launch the site, Jones said she bought a new computer, upgraded her hard drive and licensed the software she uses to create the maps. A GoFundMe page had raised nearly $27,000 as of Friday night.

While Jones said she is open to talking with the Department of Health about selling her dashboard to the state, she insisted that she did not launch the project out of spite or revenge.

“It’s really 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 to help people,” she said.

Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.


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