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Alumna Tracks the COVID-19 Outbreak

Rebekah Jones ’12

Geospatial scientist Rebekah Jones discovered a love for geography at Syracuse University and now she’s helping the state of Florida with its emergency response to the pandemic.

Rebekah Jones portrait
Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health.

When the COVID-19 virus outbreak hit Florida and the public needed information, Rebekah Jones ’12 was ready for action. As the geographic information systems (GIS) manager for the State of Florida Department of Health (DOH), she built the state’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, an interactive website that provides key information on the virus, detailed down to the county level. “I started from scratch and decided what I thought was important,” says Jones, a geospatial scientist who earned a dual bachelor’s degree in geography and journalism at Syracuse University. “I really wanted people to be able to quickly, easily and clearly understand what the numbers are in our state.”

For Jones, it was no easy task. Short-staffed, she tackled the project by herself, hunkering down with GIS mapping software for a weekend of coding, accessing databases and consolidating millions of lines of data to develop the dashboard. She drew on the interdisciplinary foundation that she built at Syracuse, combining her scientific knowledge with graphic and web interface design skills. For the basic idea, she initially consulted the global coronavirus map produced by Johns Hopkins University. She also kept in mind what would be useful to not only the general public, but academic and private researchers doing modeling projects involving the virus.

The Face of Florida’s Coronavirus Response

Jones’ dashboard covers the total cases in Florida, including the number of Florida and non-Florida residents who’ve tested positive, the number of deaths and how many people are being monitored. As of March 30, the dashboard had received more than 44.7 million views—and climbing—from unique IP addresses. One dashboard tab focuses on testing results, showing the statewide total, positive and negative results and those pending. Users can select any county on the statewide map to find data for total cases, demographics, conditions and care and travel-related cases. The county-level breakdown features bar graphs on age distribution, testing and surveillance, percentage of travel-related cases and total numbers (positive residents and nonresidents, deaths and those under surveillance). Yet another tab is devoted to cases in the United States and worldwide, incorporating the Johns Hopkins heat map model. “On Monday [March 16], when I had something I thought was presentable, I sent it to DOH and they thought it looked great,” she says.

A few hours later in the state’s Emergency Response Center in Tallahassee, she was two rooms away from a press conference being held by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he announced the dashboard was “the new face of Florida’s coronavirus response,” she says. Admittedly, she was caught off-guard, hit with a mix of both pride and fear—thinking, “I’d better make sure it’s running correctly because if something crashes now, we're in big trouble.”

No worries. Jones tweaked the dashboard a few times, and it quickly became a go-to source as media outlets posted it on their websites and Jones fielded queries from the public and journalists. When it comes to dealing with crises, Jones has plenty of experience. As a teenager in the rural southern Mississippi town of Wiggins, she endured the devastation and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Her family’s home was flooded and they lost family members in the New Orleans area. She was also out of school for months after her high school was destroyed. “Having been a kid who went through Katrina and seeing some things that may not have been appropriate for a 16-year-old, I understand how important it is to have effective leaders during a crisis,” she says. “I believe I can be one of those effective leaders and feel a duty to do so.”

Charting Natural Disasters and Environmental Health

Rebekah Jones working with colleagues in the office
Rebekah Jones ’12, geographic information systems (GIS) manager for the Florida Department of Health, collaborates with a teammate in the State Emergency Response Center. “I am proud of the extraordinary hard work and dedication of the Florida Department of Health epidemiological team and GIS personnel,” says Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees. “Providing access to real-time information is an integral part of Florida’s COVID-19 response.”

When Jones joined the Florida Department of Health in September 2018 as a GIS analyst, Hurricane Michael stormed through the South several days later and she was activated as a member of the state’s emergency response team. A year later, she also worked with the team when Hurricane Dorian materialized and tracked along the Atlantic coast. In natural disasters, her mapping and surveillance work provides crucial information, informing the public and allowing state officials to consider where to send resources or concentrate their efforts and to keep lines of communication open with other government officials, she says. “The more I get involved with emergency response, the more I like being a part of that team and community.”

Jones was appointed GIS manager in November 2019 and normally focuses her efforts on tracking environmental health—radon levels, well water surveillance, water quality assurance and testing, for instance—and other issues such as WIC-related data, homelessness and elderly affairs. “It’s rewarding to see people’s lives being made better or people becoming safer because of action I’m taking,” she says.

Finding a Passion for Geography

Ever since she was young, Jones has been acutely aware of the suffering in the world and has sought to alleviate it in some way. A first-generation college student, she experienced poverty growing up and earned a scholarship to Syracuse. She enrolled in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications to study journalism, intent on giving a “voice to the voiceless,” she says. Jones logged time as a writer, features editor and student business manager for The Daily Orange and, among her memorable experiences, she served as a member of Newhouse’s Student Representative Committee, captained the Quidditch club and was a communications and special projects intern for the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems. She worked different jobs to pay the rent, and her life took an unexpected turn when she had a son and took on the responsibilities of being a single mother. “After I had my son, I was not content with just writing about things that were happening,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of those solutions.”

By the time she left the Hill, graduating cum laude from Newhouse, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School, she had a new focus: hurricane climatology. Jones credits Maxwell associate geography professor Jane Read for guiding her in that direction. In her junior year, Jones took a seat in Read’s Global Environmental Change course, admittedly without a solid science education and skeptical of climate change. “Everything I had seen in my life changing around me was explained in her class,” she says. “That was the moment for me when it was like I’d found religion, and I knew I wanted to take every class she taught, which I did. I wanted to throw myself into this field of science as much as I could.”

Read recalls Jones’ interest being sparked in that first course and her “incredible enthusiasm for being in class and learning and doing.” Geography majors are required to take at least one methods course, and Jones enrolled in Read’s introductory GIS and remote sensing classes. “Rebekah loved learning about geospatial technologies, saw how they could be applied to her interests in the environment and went to graduate school to learn further,” Read says. “Since then, she hasn’t looked back, and is doing work that she cares about and that really matters to society.”

Jones calls Read and Distinguished Professor of Geography Mark Monmonier “rock stars” and credits them with fueling her passion for research, data analytics and geospatial science. She added a year to her time in Syracuse to earn her geography degree and went on to receive a dual master’s degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University in 2014, focusing on climatology and its environmental impact. She served as a graduate assistant at LSU’s Southern Regional Climate Center, performing climatological analysis for a state hazards mitigation plan, conducting a shoreline changes analysis of the Mississippi coast and assisting with chapters of the National Climate Assessment. She won national awards for her thesis, in which she analyzed more than 500 satellite images covering a 40-year span to compare changes in barrier islands resulting from climatological events.

Jones built on that experience as a coastal resources scientist for the state of Louisiana and as a geospatial specialist with the Louisiana Sea Grant, where she helped identify Native American burial and ceremonial sites using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology. Through this work, coupled with outreach efforts, she assisted coastal Native American communities in documenting their cultural history and seeking federal protection of their lands and heritage sites. Now closing in on a doctorate in geography from Florida State University, she’s carried that work and knowledge with her to inform her dissertation, a paleo-climatological project that explores ancient storm surge events by examining those historic sites through sediment core samples. “I developed a model for finding unmarked or unmapped burial grounds that are mass grave sites, which could have potentially been where the dead were buried from a major hurricane event,” she says. “We’re finding sites all over the coast—some of them are already gone, and some are under threat of being washed away.”

For Jones, it’s all part of an ongoing adventure—one in which she’s constantly curious, investigating and exploring, and determined to protect environmental resources and human life through her work. “Syracuse changed everything about who I was,” she says. “I was a young person who was piecing together the world through my limited experiences. It was like the whole axis of the planet shifted and nothing was the same after that. It’s been fabulous.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .


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