MAY 23, 2020 | 8:59 A.M. | TREASURE COAST–Treasure Coast News focuses on hyperlocal news for the area. However, at times a state or national story of interest does have a direct effect on our communities. This is one such story.
Recently, the scientist, Rebekah Jones, who built the database tracking the coronavirus data for the state was fired from her job. The controversy surrounding her dismissal is still in the national news, and investigations are being opened into the matter.
Her former employer, the Florida Department of Health, claims she was “disruptive” and “insubordinate.” Jones claims she was fired because she refused to change or remove data from the publicly accessible dashboard tracking the state’s COVID-19 numbers.
Additional stories have been written about her personal life which has nothing to do with the validity of the data. And that is what is important for an informed public. Is the data accurate? Can we count on the information as we begin to reopen the state? Are there more or fewer infected people around us? How really safe is it in our neighborhoods?
Jones released a statement last night which is printed in its entirety below. It does not answer the questions but adds more that need to be answered by the state. Florida is one of the few states where all public activity and documents are a public record. Our Sunshine Law cannot be thwarted when the public health and decision-making are at stake.
Statement issued by Rebekah Jones for public release
Governor DeSantis’ office rightfully faces tough questions from the public, press, and state and federal lawmakers regarding data transparency following a series of public missteps and controversies, including my removal from the dashboard and associated data I built and managed for the Florida Department of Health.
Historical data has been removed or become inaccessible, and researchers are now being told they won’t be given access to data previously published for at least another year. The dashboard I built and managed for months continues to crash under its new management, with data going missing or showing questionable numbers, and the interface itself constantly glitching and disabling features. Reports of mismanagement and misleading numbers plague an office I once helped establish as the gold standard for public data sharing.
I never stated nor implied that the Governor was involved with asking me to manipulate, delete and hide data. I never suggested any conspiracy directly involving the Governor. I have not done any public interviews, never intended to speak publicly with any members of the press, and this is my first public statement since being thrust into the national news by no choice of my own. I indeed did try to persuade the first reporters who contacted me to not publish any stories about my emails or about me while I fielded job offers from across the country. I’m just a scientist trying to do good in the world, and did not want to be at the center of a national controversy, which the Governor made impossible when he defamed me in front of the vice president of the United States.
Until last week, I was proud of Florida’s response efforts, and our team’s widely successful actions that indeed helped Florida defy the earliest, worst-case-scenario models. I celebrated our response efforts and response team with technical experts and leaders across the country when asked about the dashboard I created. I even praised DeSantis as a governor who let the experts lead the response efforts I’ve worked in the past, including hurricanes Michael and Dorian. To see the Governor now make false statements about my academic record and my personal life is a stark contradiction to what I’ve observed from him in the past. To try to give others the credit for the work I did, work he and even the White House praised just weeks ago, and his shocking and salacious attempt at character assassination through the mainstream media, feels like a cheap political move to avoid discussing the real story here, which is how the COVID-19 data is now being manipulated.
I am proud of those who know me and those in my scientific community who have reached out to me and have been brave enough to speak out and hit back at the Governor’s false accusations, both professional and personal, including the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and the American Statistical Association (ASA).
The Governor has called into question my role in creating the dashboard, and I would like to speak out on this ridiculous and false media narrative he has now inflamed.
While no one operates without the support of their team, I was the sole architect and manager of the dashboard and its published underlying data. I wrote the script in R to pull, analyze, process and format the raw data from queried data in Merlin, which is the case database managed by epidemiologists and data scientists working tirelessly across the state. I processed hundreds of thousands of lines of raw data to produce the data I published on the dashboard and on the DOH website. Working with a developer from ESRI, I wrote the Python code to push the data from our secure servers to our web interface. I designed the public- facing dashboard literally and completely alone. Every box, every graphic and chart, all of the maps, the API feeds, the Open Data Hub that housed the data, the HTML to customize the dashboard, all built by me and me alone, most days working from before my kids woke up each morning until long after they went to sleep each night.
I used skills learned through my bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies in climate science, geospatial science and communications to take raw data, analyze it, prepare and format it, and publish it for our residents in an easy to understand and authoritative web resource. I answered every email I received regarding accessing, understanding and using the data, some days hundreds of emails from the public, press and researchers in Florida and beyond. I fixed every bug in the code, made sure anyone using our data feeds knew of any changes I was making to the data schema, and kept the system running for nearly two months with minimal issues and interruptions. I did as best as anyone could by themselves in designing and managing such a massive system. I was the only one at DOH at that time who had the skillset to complete the entire process alone from start to finish, but managing this project by myself was not ideal and left me exhausted from the long hours and hard work. Like many of us who have been working remotely or isolating ourselves for safety, I missed working with my team and colleagues on a variety of projects, from emergency planning to environmental health, and I missed spending time with my family as I worked on this important project.
I received national acclaim for my work on the dashboard, including an article featured on the website of ESRI, the software company used for all of our GIS analysis and research projects. Dr. Deborah Birx praised my dashboard in multiple interviews. My dashboard was being hailed by FEMA as a shining example of effective communication and data transparency. I threw a small party with my DOH coworkers when the dashboard hit 100 million views, and even brought cake to share with the equally exhausted data scientists I had gotten to know during coronavirus. Everything had been going well until I started receiving requests to edit, change and hide data from its original format and information.
The Deputy Secretary of Health, Shamarial Roberson, asked me to manipulate and delete data in late April as work for the state’s reopening plan started to take off, and she is the one who ordered me off the dashboard and fired me when I objected to repeated requests to manually alter, hide and delete public data. All of this is provable through email and texts, which are subject to public records request. The details of what I was asked to do and how the data was eventually changed will likely be made public in the coming months as state and federal investigations and testimony unfold.
Scott Pritchard, one of the epidemiologists on our response team, asked me on May 4 to hide all of the data from the public and make it inaccessible for anyone to download and, consequently, analyze or check for accuracy. As the manager of Geographic Information Science for all of the Florida Department of Health, Pritchard was never in a position of authority over me. When I pushed back, stating plainly that transparency was something I worked very hard for on my dashboard, Pritchard went around me and asked my supervisor to order me to delete and hide the data. When I received that instruction, I did as ordered, but not without voicing my concern and disagreement beforehand. Once they realized how much of a mistake it was to intentionally hide and delete data, they asked me to put it back up, and I did so immediately, without any data being altered or changed in any way. No question about the data’s accuracy was ever brought to my attention, as Pritchard clearly stated that the data wasn’t wrong, he just didn’t want to have to answer questions about it that would make him, DOH or the state look bad. I made multiple, vocal objections to hiding data to spite the public or the press, and even my supervisor tried to explain to Pritchard, Blackmore and Roberson how all of the data could easily be pulled from the dashboard itself by any half-decent programmer. Even though I made those changes as instructed, because I was the only person with access to the dashboard or its data to do so, I was removed from the dashboard the next day.
The only directive I refused was to manually change data in a misleading way to drum up public support of resuming pre-pandemic level of activities without a science- based assessment of each county’s respective risk or readiness to do so. The request to mislead the public with falsified data made me uneasy, and I immediately reached out to my supervisor, as well as my friends and family, about what happened. It was no secret in our office that Shamarial Roberson asked me to compromise my integrity and use my dashboard to mislead the public about the safety of reopening each county. I had never in my academic or professional career as a scientist been asked to manipulate data to influence public opinion, and I am still caught in disbelief that this person remains employed by DOH, while I have been wrongfully terminated and defamed by the Governor and state employees.
I did what any scientist would when asked to do something wrong – I said no and I made clear that I would not participate in any research or activity using misleading data that could get people sick or worse.
Geographers, scientists and data analysts like myself have been critical to the COVID-19 response since the beginning. Epidemiology was founded and remains a critical subfield within geography since the day John Snow mapped the Broad Street Pump and into the twenty-first century and COVID-19. By disparaging my education, experience and dedication to my job, the Governor insults every scientist, data analyst, and first responder who has been working this response effort with no breaks, no rest, no recognition since the start.
I am blessed to have the support of my family and community, and would like every scientist out there to know that you are needed, trusted and invaluable, even if no one understands or appreciates your tireless efforts, or the sacrifices you have made for the greater good.
My former colleagues with knowledge of these events may be afraid of being caught up in the media storm that has taken over my life this week, and fear the repercussions to their job and safety if they choose to speak up. I would never ask anyone to intentionally insert themselves in a national controversy, but that was not a choice I was given, and while I hope you consider doing the right thing, I also hope you are at peace with whatever decision you ultimately make
I ask that all parties respect my family’s privacy at this time, and encourage fair and rigorous investigation of these events through the proper channels.
Jones’s website is GeoJones.org.