Rebekah Jones said state agents in vests knocked on her door on Monday, Dec. 7, and took all her “hardware and tech” after showing her a warrant based on a complaint filed by the Florida Department of Health.
Jones is the former Department of Health data scientist who built Florida’s much-praised COVID-19 dashboard before being fired over what she said was refusing to “manipulate data.” She was fired from her job as Geographic Information Systems manager for the department in May.
Who is Rebekah Jones?
Jones was the architect and manager of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, which had been praised by White House officials for its accessibility. She had worked for the Department of Health as a geospatial analyst and then a Geographic Information System (GIS) manager since 2018, according to her resume.
Jones told 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 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.
Jones has had a history of run-ins with law enforcement in Florida. It involves multiple cases, all but a single case closed without a conviction. One is a robbery charge that was dropped when no evidence was produced for prosecution. The rest, including the active one, relate to Jones’ personal life. She is currently facing one misdemeanor count of cyberstalking, stemming from what appears to be an acrimonious breakup.
Why was Rebekah Jones fired?
The scientist who created Florida’s COVID-19 data portal was fired from her job with the Florida Department of Health in May, she said, for refusing to manipulate data.
After Florida Today first reported Jones’ removal from her position in charge of the Florida COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard she created, she confirmed as reported by CBS-12 in West Palm Beach that she was fired because she was ordered to censor some data. She refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis in May questioned Jones’ credentials and painted her as a disruptive employee and a criminal. “She’s being charged with cyber stalking and cyber sexual harassment,” he said, adding that this was also part of why she was dismissed.
DeSantis’ remarks came on the heels of an article on The Capitolist, a news site run by former Rick Scott spokesman Brian Burgess, that accused Jones and the media that wrote about her of mischaracterizing her role as the architect of the dashboard and as a scientist while glossing over her criminal record.
Rebekah Jones in the news
After her firing, Jones built the COVID Monitor, her own coronavirus dashboard. She has also appeared on cable news and given interviews to national media. She was recently listed as one of Fortune’s 40 under 40 this year. Forbes said:
Jones began thinking about building a national database, and in August, she solidified a partnership with Google and nonprofit FinMango. With Google’s cloud computing and data capabilities and FinMango to help manage the project, Jones is now building a data set for every school district in the U.S., including opening dates, restrictions, and number of cases in each district.
Before she was fired, Esri, a company that provides the software tools used to build Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, singled out Jones as the “Dedicated Scientist in Florida [who] Made Quick Moves to Map the Disease.” The Esri article credited Jones for building the dashboard as well as managing it, highlighting her academic and professional qualifications.
Jones was a Geography Ph.D. student at Florida State University from the fall semester of 2016 through the spring semester of 2018 but has not earned a degree. Jones’ resume says she also has a bachelor’s and master’s of science in the discipline along with credentials in journalism and mass communication. Her doctoral emphasis was in data science, according to Esri. She also has published research on hurricane modeling.
Jigsha Desai runs a digital team of producers and planners for several newsrooms in Florida. Support their work by subscribing to a local news organization.