Former Florida data scientist creates competing coronavirus dashboard

The new dashboard was created by embattled data scientist Rebekah Jones

Rebekah Jones says she was fired from the Florida Department of Health after she refused to "manipulate" COVID-19 data (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Now there are dueling data dashboards to track the new coronavirus in Florida, New 6 partner Florida Today reports.

Visually, the new COVID-19 dashboard has a striking resemblance to the Florida Department of Health's officials dashboard of new coronavirus data, although with darker, earthier color tones, and many more cases and deaths.

The new dashboard created by embattled data scientist Rebekah Jones shows several thousands more people with the coronavirus, 90 more deaths, and hundreds of thousands fewer who have been tested, than the state’s official site run by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH).

Jones was a key data figure with FDOH who put together and maintained the state's COVID-19 dashboard. In emails to FLORIDA TODAY, Jones said she was fired May 18 for refusing to "manipulate" COVID-19 stats so that rural counties could reopen sooner.

DeSantis and health department officials have said that was not the case and that Jones was fired for insubordination.

Jones has argued that Florida is under-counting coronavirus cases, and her new site shows how she thinks tests, cases and deaths ought to be reported to the public.

Jones' site on Friday showed 77,799 "COVID-19 positive people," while the Florida Department of Health's dashboard showed 70,971 total cases, including 1,630 positive non-residents. The additional 6,828 COVID-19 positive people on Jones' site is almost 10% more cases.

As of Friday, the state's site showed 2,877 deaths, while Jones' showed 2,967, or 90 more deaths.

Jones’ site includes deaths of non-residents who caught the virus in Florida. The state has excluded those people since mid-April.

"We count everyone who has had a confirmed-positive COVID-19 lab result, including antibody testing," a press release announcing the site says. "Any cumulative count of positive people in Florida should include any person who has a confirmed-positive lab result, whether tested while symptomatic or not. This helps us better track the disease burden on healthcare systems and its spread in the community."

That could be a mistake, cautioned Dr. Terry Adirim, chairwoman of Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Integrated Biomedical Science. She warned against combining the results because antibody tests are more prone to false positives. Jones’ site separately shows the state’s tally as well.

The Florida Department of Health did not immediately respond for comment Friday on Jones' new dashboard.

Jones dubs her new dashboard — — “A People’s Dashboard for Florida during COVID-19,” or the Florida COVID Community Action website.

Rebekah Jones, a former state health department data manager, has created a competing coronavirus dashboard, to show how she believes COVID-19 cases should be presented to the public. (Photo: screen shot of Florida's Community Coronavirus Dashboard)

She announced the new site Thursday, bringing back online her dispute with her former employer, the Florida Department of Health, about how COVID-19 data should be reported and presented to the public.

Jones says the new site uses “a community-mapping approach, where data is scaled to the local level and community members can submit data instantly online.”

Florida is not counting COVID-19 cases the day the positive test result come in but rather the day they were manually processed, she says, which affects the percentage of positive cases. The percentage who test positive shrinks as the denominator grows. So to boost the denominator, Jones says DOH began dividing the number of positive cases by the number of total tests, not individual people. This, she said, meant the percentage was no longer an apples-to-apples ratio: a number of people divided by a number of people. It became people divided by tests.

And if someone is tested more than once or tests are sent to multiple labs, this at times resulted in a double count, according to Jones.

“You have now the governor saying the positivity rate is 2.37 (%), when in actuality, it's probably 10 or 11%, that's a big difference,” Jones told FLORIDA TODAY in phone call last month.

She says her new site has "the most up-to-date statistics, in proper context, with a host of other data Florida leaders have previously tried to hide or restrict from public view."

Users can search their county for the latest data, find testing locations and hours, and submit information about resources in their community.

The information Jones' dashboard comes from publicly available state data, much of which is not reported front and center on state websites, but often buried in thousand-page reports or scattered PDF files. It includes hard-to-find hospital capacity information provided by another state agency, the Agency for Health Care Administration.

“We put the data in context, clearly stating each variable’s limitations and caveats, for all the data on the site, including DOH’s data,” Jones’ press release said.

Her dashboard also shows “report cards” judging each county’s readiness to enter Phase 2.

The state’s benchmarks for reopening also include two weeks of declining counts in new cases, declines in COVID-like illness from hospitals and emergency rooms and positivity.

By Jones’ calculations based on data reported last week, only two counties qualify: Liberty and Clay.

“People have a right to know what’s going on in a straightforward nonpolitical kind of way,” she said.

But without the backing of the state, it is uncertain that her site will win over the public. In a statement announcing the new site, Jones said her website “will always be under construction,” and “we look forward to hearing from the community about what they would like to see on their dashboard.”

Jones, who lives in Tallahassee, has set up a GoFundMe account while she works on her dashboard, with a goal of raising $50,000. Contributors have donated more than $4,000 so far.

“I was very very worried about paying bills next Friday,” she said.