Florida licensed data scientist launches her own coronavirus dashboard: NPR

Updated June 17 at 11:50 a.m. ET

Rebekah Jones was fired last month from her job at the Florida Department of Health, where she helped create a state COVID-19 case data portal. Now she has created her own dashboard.

In some ways, Jones’ new portal for Florida coronavirus data is very similar to that of the state health department. But it presents some key differences that reflect how controversial coronavirus data has become amid politicized arguments over whether it’s safe for states to reopen.

Case in point: Jones’ dashboard contains a map showing which counties in Florida are ready for the next phase of reopening. According to his calculations, only two of the state’s 67 counties currently meet the state’s criteria for further away relaxation of restrictions.

Jones says she was initially tasked with creating essentially the same type of dashboard for the health department’s website in her role as manager of the geographic information system – until it became clear what that the results would show.

“When I went to show them what the report card would say for each county, among other things, they asked me to delete the report card because it showed that no county, roughly, was ready for reopening,” she says. “And they didn’t want to draw attention to it.”

Jones says a superior asked him to open up the data and change the numbers so the state’s coronavirus positivity rating drops from 18% to 10% — and the state appears to be meeting its reopening goal.

She says she refused to do this manipulation and others she was asked to do, and was fired on May 18.

“To me, it didn’t feel like some kind of political plot or some overarching directive,” Jones said. “It seemed like people were expecting me to bring these results, the results to support the plan they had written, and they didn’t, they seemed panicked and like they had to find a way to match the results to the plan.”

Florida entered phase 1 it reopened on May 4, in all counties except Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. He still has eased restrictions with the start of Phase 2 June 5, but now is one of the 20 states where new cases are increasing daily. On Sunday, the state had more than 73,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.

Jones and her lawyer are now investigating whether she could be protected by whistleblower law. Jones says she asked at work how to file a whistleblower complaint and was fired the next day.

A spokesman for Florida Governor Ron De Santis said last month that Jones “shown repeated insubordination while at the department.”

Now a private citizen, Jones continues to take issue with how the state calculates its coronavirus positivity rate. Florida’s official website says there are more than 1.3 million ‘total people tested’ in Florida, of which around 73,500 tested positive, giving an ‘overall percent positive’ rate of 5.4% .

But Jones says that number is misleading.

“I actually wrote the script to create this data, so I know exactly what it looks like,” she says, adding that she’s audited it and checked it with several other statisticians to make sure it’s correct. correct.

She says that on the state’s dashboard, anyone who tests positive will only be counted as a positive test once, regardless of how many times they test positive. But someone who tests negative will be counted over and over every time they test negative for coronavirus.

Jones says that because many residents, such as healthcare workers, require repeat testing, the state’s dashboard artificially deflates the true positivity rate.

“They add their total testing numbers instead of their total headcounts, which makes their percentage positive extremely low,” she says.

But the Florida Department of Health says it’s Jones’ dashboard that’s using unreliable data.

Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, said in a statement to NPR that Jones’ dashboard “aggregates disparate sets of data without accounting for many of the important guidelines used by epidemiologists to come to their conclusions.

The DOH dashboard gets its data from official sources, Moscoso said, including the statewide Merlin and Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE) tools, as well as statewide data. official reports from partner states and federal agencies.

Jones and the Health Department use much of the same underlying state and county data for case numbers and details. But some of the data in Jones’ dashboard, Moscoso says, “is either self-reported or derived from unofficial sources.”

“It has always been the Department’s goal to provide accurate and confirmed information regarding COVID-19 in Florida as quickly as possible. We will continue to employ only official sources of information, ensuring that our online resources are the most factual and up-to-date available today,” he says.

The health department has not explained how it calculates its “total people tested” figure.

Cindy Prins, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, finds Jones’ dashboard to be more comprehensive than the state’s.

“There’s data out there that wasn’t on the Florida COVID-19 DOH dashboard or was available and maybe it wasn’t presented the same way it’s presented now…You get just a bigger picture of what’s happening,” says Prins.

She also notes that the state site does not appear to use the label “total number of people tested” accurately.

“From a definitional perspective, ‘total number of people tested’ and what it really represents is ‘total number of tests performed.’ These are two different metrics,” says Prins, explaining that she was tested – but if they were tested again, they shouldn’t be counted as a separate person, they’re just someone who was tested twice.

“There is a distinction between the total number of people tested and the total number of tests carried out.”

The state has faced other questions about its handling of coronavirus data. the Miami Herald reported last week that Florida has for weeks refused to release data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, even as many other states have done so.

“[The state health department]Public data are incomplete, sometimes modified without explanation, and saw deleted information on the questions of journalists, “said the Herald reports.

Prins says the public interest in COVID-19 data is an indication that amid the ongoing pandemic, many people want to see the numbers for themselves.

They get a visual of what’s happening from both dashboards, she says: They can see the numbers and what’s happening in their own county. “I think people found some value in that where before maybe they hadn’t really looked at that kind of source.”

Natalie Dean is a professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida and a member of the advisory board for the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer data collection effort launched by Atlantic. She says it’s helpful that Jones’ dashboard connects people directly to testing and healthcare information, and “not just shows them the data, but helps people make decisions.”

And Dean says it’s valuable that Jones makes it easy to export the data she uses. “A lot of people make their own models,” she says. “As someone who does this, it’s really helpful to make this data more accessible.”

With Jones now out of a job, her site relies on donations from GoFundMe to keep it running. Its goal is to give people a place with information they can trust and find help if they need it.

“I think I’m uniquely equipped to try to help with that,” she says, “so that’s what I’m doing. I just don’t want people to freak out. I don’t want anyone to freak out. feel scared or helpless.”

Sean N. Ayres