NYT graphics editor discusses relevance of math

On Monday, Feb. 16, the St. Olaf Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Sciences hosted St. Olaf alumna Amanda Cox ’01 to speak about how she incorporates mathematics and statistics to create graphics and visuals as a New York Times graphics editor.

This event had a great turnout as many students and faculty members assembled in Regents to participate in the colloquium. Cox began the seminar by describing her job as a marriage between traditional journalism and modern photojournalism. This creates a balance of words and images that brings the representation of data and diagrams to life.

The usefulness of mathematics and statistics was the focus of this seminar, and Cox gave an example of this with her work on election predictions. Cox and her team worked on a project creating models to predict the end results of an election. Before the elections were over, they were able to predict that Mark Warner would win the race for Senator in Virginia. Although they lacked some data, they were able to use the past voting patterns of the different counties and voting data on which counties were reported to strengthen their model.

“This is an example of a place where math and a little bit of modeling help us get to information better and say smart things in real time on election night,” said Cox.

Cox also talked about the role of mathematics in several behind-the-scenes actions that are often invisible to the general public. She explained the complex working of graphic designs where math is incredibly useful.

“Math shows up in the background of a graphic just to make the mouse-over seem nice, even though you are never going to see it,” Cox said.

For example, in order for a mouse to be able to click and display information on a web browser, it requires polygon graphics that make interactions seem very seamless and smooth. All these polygons remain invisible yet vital in the background.

Cox’s work continues to establish the integration of mathematics and statistics. She spoke about her work with Harvard economists to create a model that is able to predict the economic status of people.

The resulting map was very impressive. It is able to predict what the economic status of a given person would be in the future, given their family’s economic status and their birthplace.

“If you grow up poor, the South is the worst place to grow up; and if you grow up rich, California is the worst place to grow up,” Cox said.

This model further uses data to categorize the general population. Cox was able to conclude that, “If you grow up rich, you do worse than your parent on average, and if you grow up poor, you do better than your parent on average.”

Many more examples were used to demonstrate the practicality of mathematics and statistics in real-life problem solving. Cox’s talk was followed up with a question and answer session, in which students could inquire about potential careers using mathmatics.

Throughout the seminar, Cox showed how math and statistics can be fun and creative. She encouraged the audience to see beauty in math – for example, the R statistical programming can create beautiful sketches and graphs.

One could definitely see and feel Cox’s passion for mathematics and her job, as she talked animatedly and used many personal experiences to enrich the audience’s understanding.

Concluding the seminar, Cox gifted the audience with some advice about modern journalism.

“The best journalism is not mad libs,” said Cox. “You don’t start with a sentence and fill in a noun, fill in an adjective… sometimes we do that, but that is not our highest form of journalism.”