FloridaToday And Their Breathless Support Of Rebekah Jones.

Rebekah Jones

For at least the past week, the FloridaToday and other news sources have been running stories on the termination of Rebekah Jones, who led the development of the Florida website / dashboard on tracking of COVID-19 cases.

Jones says she was fired because she refused to manipulate data. Governor DeSantis and the State claim she was fired for insubordination.

In these times, it seems nothing can happen without being politicized and this case is no exception.

For example, in an opinion piece entitled “A cover-up or ‘non-issue?’ We must learn more about COVID-19 data chief’s ousting | Our view” the FloridaToday left this tracking change / artifact at the bottom of the article after they had finished the piece itself.

Clearly, the FloridaToday wants to discredit DeSantis by linking him to a Trump “playbook” of some type but decided that tact would be too brazen for their purposes which is to seem that they are unbiased seekers of truth for the people when in fact, they are biased and rather lazy in reporting while never allowing facts to get in the way in their narrative.

We want to examine some of the claims made by Jones and how the FloridaToday represented those claims.

Jones claimed that she designed the Florida dashboard from the ground up – from scratch.

That’s not exactly true. Jones used programming modules from a company called Ersi. The modules are part of their ArcGIS Online subscription service:

Part of the Esri Geospatial Cloud, ArcGIS Online enables you to connect people, locations, and data using interactive maps. Work with smart, data-driven styles and intuitive analysis tools that deliver location intelligence. Share your insights with the world or specific groups.

One of the key features of the product is the ability to create maps using data supplied by the user for others to see.

Build maps that encourage interaction

Interactive maps create immersive experiences that take maps from a static view to an opportunity for users to explore. Enhanced details and new perspectives spring from the map as you zoom in, search, and interact with the data.

There are many ways to explore interactive maps. Here are several options:

  • Gain additional details as you zoom in
  • Click on the map to see region-specific information in text, tables, and images
  • Search the world’s locations and your custom locations
  • Get additional perspectives by filtering data and changing colors

Bring your own data

Data comes in a variety of formats and from many places. ArcGIS Online makes it simple to upload files and bring in content from the cloud. Many file types are supported, including spreadsheets, KML, GeoJSON, and common geospatial files. With ArcGIS Analytics for IoT, an add-on capability, you can connect to external sources of observational data such as IoT platforms, message brokers, and third-party APIs. When your data needs refining, ArcGIS Online includes tools to help you prepare your data for visualization and analysis.

Jones had a example of the way the dashboard should look in that the Johns Hopkins University had created a similar dashboard which means even the design was not “created” by her.

If Jones had created the dashboard on her own using her own coding prowess, one would expect the dashboard to appear on a Florida State owned site or server. Instead, just like the Hopkins’ dashboard, the URL of the Florida dashboard is on the ARCGIS servers and not those belonging to the State.

The only conclusion is that Jones overstated her design of the dashboard. That is not to say that the end product was not very good and useful. It is. What it calls into question is her honesty, which is part of the “who are you going to believe?” question.

To show how the FloridaToday wants to change the narrative, take a look at what Jones herself told the FloridaToday in an email:

“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 not just been reassigned on May 5, but fired from her job as Geographic Information Systems manager for the Florida Department of Health.

Sixteen hours a day means that there was only eight hours left in the day for Jones to sleep, eat, shower and commute back and forth to work. That type of schedule would be exhausting.

However, the FloridaToday tries to ignore Jones’ own words to them in order to attack DeSantis:

According to DeSantis, Jones was tired and “needed a break from working two months straight.” and what she truly meant is that her team “are busy and can’t answer every single email.”

The circumstances that led her to write that alarming email and then later write another one walking it back require investigation. Her original email makes no mention of her being exhausted.

Perhaps the FloridaToday forgot what they wrote and Jones claimed as to the amount of time and effort she put into the dashboard?

The next issue is a bit of a picky one, but one that shows a bit of a bias on the part of the FloridaToday.

From a headline:

Florida scientist was fired for ‘refusing to manipulate’ COVID-19 data, she said

Quick. What degree does Jones have that would be applicable to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Medical? Biology? Epidemiology? Public health?

The correct answer Jones’ applicable degree is in geography. Some have harped on the fact that “geology” is not a science and therefore Jones is not a “scientist.” We disagree. Degrees in geography are degrees in science and we have no problem with her being called a “scientist.”

The FloridaToday in a completely different article finally gives Jones’ academic credentials:

A Florida State University spokesman confirmed Jones was a Geography PhD student 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 bachelors and masters of science in the discipline alongside credentials in journalism and mass communication. Her doctoral emphasis was in data science, according to Esri. She also has published research on hurricane modelling.

Jones appears to be eminently qualified to enter the data used in the the ArcGIS modules. We are not doubting that.

The problem is that the FloridaToday headlines seem to indicate Jones had more knowledge and education in the health fields which is not the case.

However, what is being discussed is “why was Jones fired?”

She claims it was for being told to “manipulate data.” DeSantis and the State claim it was because she was insubordinate.

As to her claim, the facts don’t seem to support her:

The truth: Jones was asked to temporarily disable the ability to export data from the dashboard so that it could be verified that the data matched other sources.

We previously gave credit to the Tampa Bay Times for accurately describing Jones’ role in managing the COVID-19 dashboard. They also accurately describe events leading to Jones termination. Don’t misunderstand – the Times is still guilty of trying to make Jones a martyr. Take a look at how they describe what happened:

[On May 4th] the [EventDate] column vanished from the “Person Cases” data, which lists anonymized records for every confirmed case in Florida. The Palm Beach Post reported the disappearance the next day, May 5.

The Tampa Bay Times automatically checks for changes in the data and archives new updates. Shortly before 10:12 a.m on May 4., data still included the EventDate field, showing records with listed dates that people reported symptoms as early as January 1. By 3:02 p.m., the column was gone.

For much of the next day, May 5, the column was either missing or empty, with every row listing “None.” Finally, it returned shortly before 8:02 p.m.

If you’re struggling to see what all the fuss is about, you’re not alone. By the Times own account, a single column of data became temporarily unavailable for a day and a half. The only other item worthy of note in the Times’ story is that the state’s official epidemiologist (i.e. an actual medical scientist, not a data mapper, like Jones) asked to have the ability to export data from the dashboard temporarily disabled while health officials verify that the dates match other official sources.

This is critical. The Tampa Bay Times had the full explanation for why the data was temporarily unavailable, but they and other media outlets decided to run with “coronavirus conspiracy” instead. In fact, the Times headline claims Jones was asked to “delete” data. No where in the story itself does the word “delete” appear.

So what was happening? Why was Jones asked to disable – not delete or manipulate – data available to the pubic even for a short time?

It all has to do with the amount of data flowing onto the group which she was leading and the reliability of that data being published:

But over the past two months, the dashboard had been altered several times, with key changes to the data being presented, to the point The Capitolist was eventually forced to abandon the tool as a reliable source of information about the crisis. The dashboard data often did not match other state sources of information, and did not make clear what changes were made to the presented data, making tracking and data analysis using the dashboard impossible.

Data from various sources were not matching each other. In a very fluid, fast moving situation where standards of data change and fluctuate, different sources were coming up with different data sets.

Jones’ superiors asked for her to disable one column of data until the data could be matched up and verified. In short, it appears that State wanted the public information to be accurate. Jones took that to mean they wanted the data “manipulated” in some way.

Rebekah Jones said in an email to CBS12 News that her removal was “not voluntary” and that she was removed from her position because she was ordered to censor some data, but refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

There are emails that support the State’s position that Jones was asked to pause the publication of data but none of those emails or any other email show any official saying Jones should change or manipulate the data, much less change or manipulate the data for a specific purpose.

Jones made statements that the State was looking to manipulate data to any and all who would listen to her. Supervisors asked her to stop making the false statements. Jones doubled down and not only refused to stop, she claimed that others could not run the site. Jones was the head of a department that was charged with data entry, maintenance and running of the dashboard. She hadn’t worked with her team to make sure they understood how the site was structured using ArcGIS? If anything, her statement of the “indispensable person” is more damning to her cause. The State demoted and removed her from the position but that did not stop her from making accusations.

The State then offered her the chance to resign or be terminated.

She chose the latter.

While some, including the governor, have mentioned and even focused on events in Jones’ personal life, we aren’t sure they cast much light on her situation at work. Her character away from the job perhaps, but we don’t want to go there.

What we do find illuminating is a 2016 incident while Jones was employed by LSU:

Staff member booked after altercation with LSUPD officers

On June 13, 26-year-old University staff member Rebekah Jones was booked on one count of battery on a police officer, one count of remaining after forbidden and two counts of resisting arrest, Scott said. Scott said officers arrived at the Sea Grant building when Jones refused to leave at the request of LSU Human Resources. Scott said Jones initiated physical contact against two LSUPD officers while resisting arrest and officers were forced to subdue her.

Jones appears to have a history of defying those in authority if she disagrees with them.

The incident at LSU is on point to what the state claims happened with her in Florida:

Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ administration said last night that the employee was fired for insubordination, disputing allegations that she was terminated for refusing to manipulate data.

“Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in a statement. “The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.”

The bottom line is that the FloridaToday and other news outlets continue to promote the claim that Jones was terminated for refusing to “manipulate the data.” To them, she is a martyr with DeSantis playing the part of the oppressor and hangman.

We can’t find much support for that position, but the FloridaToday has the right to push whatever narrative they wish, even at the expense of the truth.

Don’t believe us? Don’t think that the FloridaToday is sloppy in their journalism?

The FloridaToday has written many articles on the Jones’ firing:
Florida scientist was fired for ‘refusing to manipulate’ COVID-19 data, she said
Coronavirus: As Florida re-opens, COVID-19 data chief gets sidelined and researchers cry foul
Accusations fly around dismissed Health Department official, but questions about COVID-19 data persist
A cover-up or ‘non-issue?’ We must learn more about COVID-19 data chief’s ousting | Our view

In every one of those article, the FloridaToday has used a picture of Jones. This picture in fact:

Take a look over Jones’ “right” shoulder.

Didn’t anyone at the FloridaToday notice that the state Florida is not in that orientation on any map? That the browser on the second monitor was backwards as is the keyboard?

Can’t the ForidaToday get something simple and basic like that correct?

Solid reporting there.

Organizations – even the State government – generally don’t like to fire people. Most people and supervisors will take the firing as some sort of failure on their part. Supervisors will wonder what they could have done differently to prevent the employee being let go. We also are not discounting the idea that Jones’ superiors may have made mistakes in handling her. That is entirely possible even though there is no documentation of that.

What is far more likely in our opinion, is that Jones was let go because she basically told her superiors (just as she had done at LSU) “you’re not the boss of me.”

And right now, she’s right. They are not her supervisors anymore because she no longer works for the State.

Why that FloridaToday and other sites won’t see the flaws in their own reporting is a mystery to us other than they have a political agenda that is not based on any variation of the truth.

One Response to “FloridaToday And Their Breathless Support Of Rebekah Jones.”

  1. Rather embarrassing for a “unbiased” news source to publish their own bias.

    Well done ROH!

  2. […] The FloridaToday paper was fertile ground for Jones and false accusations. […]