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Data Structures

One way to look at a computer program is to think of it as a list of instructions that the computer should follow. However, in another sense, many computer programs are simply ways to manipulate data to achieve a desired result. We’ve already written many programs that do this, from calculating the minimum and maximum values of a list of numbers, to storing and retrieving data about students and teachers in a school.

As we start to consider our programs as simply ways to manipulate data, we may quickly realize that we are performing the same actions over and over again, or even treating data in many similar ways. Over time, these ideas have become the basis for several common data structures that we may use in our programs.

Tree Graphic Tree Graphic ^[File:Binary tree.svg. (2019, September 14). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 22:18, February 7, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Binary_tree.svg&oldid=365739199.]

Data Structure

Broadly speaking, a data structure is any part of our program that stores data using a particular format or method. Typically data structures define how the data is arranged, how it is added to the structure, how it can be removed, and how it can be accessed.

Data structures can give us very useful ways to look at how our data is organized. In addition, a data structure may greatly impact how easy, or difficult, it can be to perform certain actions with the data. Finally, data structures also impose performance limitations on our code. Some structures may be better at performing a particular operation than others, so we may have to consider that as well when choosing a data structure for our program.

In this class, we’ll spend the majority of our time learning about these common data structures, as well as algorithmic techniques that work well with each one. By formalizing these structures and techniques, we are able to build a common set of building blocks that every programmer is familiar with, making it much easier to build programs that others can understand and reuse.

First, let’s review some of these common data structures and see how they could be useful in our programs.

Linear Structures

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List Data Structure List Data Structure

First, we can broadly separate the data structures we’re going to learn about into two types, linear and non-linear data structures.

A linear data structure typically stores data in a single dimension, just like an array. By using a linear data structure, we would know that a particular element in the data structure comes before another element or vice-versa, but that’s about it. A great example is seen in the image above. We have a list of numbers, and each element in the list comes before another element, as indicated by the arrows.

Linear Data Structure Hierarchy

Linear Data Structures Linear Data Structures

Linear data structures can further be divided into two types: arrays, which are typically finite sized; and linked lists, which can be infinitely sized. We’ve already worked with arrays extensively by this point, but linked lists are most likely a new concept. That’s fine! We’ll explore how to build our own later in this course.

Using either arrays or linked lists, we can build the three most commonly used linear data structures: stacks, queues, and sets. However, before we learn about each of those, let’s review a bit more about what the list data structure itself looks like.


The list data structure is the simplest form of a linear data structure. As we can guess from the definition, a list is simply a grouping of data that is presented in a given order. With lists, not only do the elements in the list matter, but the order matters as well. It’s not simply enough to state that elements $8$, $6$ and $7$ are in the list, but generally we also know that $8$ comes before $6$, which comes before $7$.

We’ve already learned about arrays, which are perfect examples of lists in programming. In fact, Python uses the data type list in the same way most other programming languages use arrays. Other programming languages, such as Java, provide a list data structure through their standard libraries.

List Operations

One important way to classify data structures is by the operations they can perform on the data. Since a list is the simplest version of a linear data structure, it has several important operations it can perform:

  • insert - inserts an element anywhere in the list, including at the beginning or the end;
  • remove - removes an element from anywhere in the list, including at the beginning or the end;
  • find - finds the location of the given element in the list, usually given as an index just like an array index;
  • get - returns the element at a given location, similar to using an array index to retrieve an element from an array; and
  • size - returns the number of elements in the list.

For example, let’s look at the insert operation. Assume we have the list shown in the following diagram:

List Data Structure List Data Structure

Then, we decide we’d like to add the element $4$ at index $3$ in this list. So, we can think of this like trying to place the element in the list as shown below:

List Before Insert List Before Insert

Once we insert that element, we then shift all of the other elements back one position, making the list one element larger. The final version is shown below:

List After Insert List After Insert

Lists are a very powerful data structure, and one of the most commonly used in a variety of programs. While arrays may seem very flexible, their static size and limited operations can sometimes make them more difficult to use than they are worth. Many programmers choose to use the more flexible list data structure instead.

When to Use a List

When deciding which data structure to use, lists are best when we might be adding or removing data from anywhere in the list, but we want to maintain the ordering between elements. As we’ll see on the later pages, we can have more specific types of structures for particular ways we intend to add and remove data from our structure, but lists are a great choice if neither of those are a good fit.

Stacks and Queues

The next two data structures we’ll look at are stacks and queues. They are both very similar to lists in most respects, but each one puts a specific limitation on how the data structure operates that make them very useful in certain situations.


Stack Diagram Stack Diagram ^[File:Lifo stack.png. (2017, August 7). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 23:14, February 7, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Lifo_stack.png&oldid=254596945.]

A stack is one special version of a list. Specifically, a stack is a Last In, First Out or LIFO data structure.

So, what does that mean? Basically, we can only add elements to the end, or top of the stack. Then, when we want to get an element from the stack, we can only take the one from the top–the one that was most recently added.

A great way to think of a stack is like a stack of plates, such as the one pictured below:

Stack of Plates Stack of Plates ^[File:Tallrik - Ystad-2018.jpg. (2019, December 31). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 23:17, February 7, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Tallrik_-_Ystad-2018.jpg&oldid=384552503.]

When we want to add a new plate to the stack, we can just set it on top. Likewise, if we need a plate, we’ll just take the top one off and use it.

A stack supports three major unique operations:

  • push - add an item to the top of the stack;
  • pop - remove an item from the top of the stack; and
  • peek - see what the top item on the stack is, but don’t remove it.

Many stacks also include additional operations such as size and find as well.


Queue Diagram Queue Diagram ^[File:Data Queue.svg. (2014, August 15). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 23:21, February 7, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Data_Queue.svg&oldid=131660203.]

A queue is another special version of a list, this time representing a First In, First Out or FIFO data structure.

As seen in the diagram above, new items are added to the back of the queue. But, when we need to take an item from a queue, we’ll take the item that is in the front, which is the one that was added first.

Where have we seen this before? A great example is waiting our turn in line at the train station,

Waiting in Line Waiting in Line ^[File:People waiting a train of Line 13 to come 02.JPG. (2016, November 28). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 23:23, February 7, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:People_waiting_a_train_of_Line_13_to_come_02.JPG&oldid=223382692.]

In many parts of the world, the term queueing is commonly used to refer to the act of standing in line. So, it makes perfect sense to use that same word to refer to a data structure.

When to Use a Stack or a Queue

As we can probably guess, we would definitely want to use a stack if we need our data structure to follow the last in, first out, or LIFO ordering. Similarly, we’d use a queue if we need first in, first out or FIFO ordering.

If we can’t be sure that one or the other of those orderings will work for us, then we can’t really use a stack or a queue in our program.

Why Not Just Use Lists?

Of course, one of the biggest questions that comes from this is “why not just use lists for everything?” Indeed, lists can be used as both a queue and a stack, simply by consistently inserting and removing elements from either the beginning or the end of the list as needed. So why do we need to have separate data structures for a queue and a stack?

There are two important reasons. First, if we know that we only need to access the most recently added element, or the element added first, it makes sense to have a special data structure for just that usage. In this way, it is clear to anyone else reading our program that we will only be using the data in that specific way. Behind the scenes, of course, we can just use a list to represent a queue or a stack, but in our design documents and in our code, it might be very helpful to know if we should think of it like a stack or a queue.

The other reason has to do with performance. By knowing exactly how we need to use the data, we can design data structures that are specifically created to perform certain operations very quickly and efficiently. A generic list data structure may not be as fast or memory efficient as a structure specifically designed to be used as a stack, for example.

As we learn about each of these data structures throughout this course, we’ll explore how each data structure works in terms of runtime performance and memory efficiency.


Set Diagram Set Diagram

Another linear data structure is known as a set. A set is very similar to a list, but with two major differences:

  1. A set cannot contain duplicate elements. Each element must be unique in the set.
  2. A set does not necessarily keep track of the ordering of the elements within the set.

In fact, the term set comes from mathematics. We’ve probably seen sets already in a math class.

Beyond the typical operations to add and remove elements from a set, there are several operations unique to sets:

  • union - find the elements that are contained in one or both of the sets given;
  • intersection - find the elements only contained in both sets given;
  • set difference - remove all elements from a set that are also contained in another set; and
  • subset - test if all elements in one set are also contained in another set.

Again, many of these operations may be familiar from their use in various math classes.

Set Operations and Boolean Logic

In addition, we can easily think of set operations as boolean logic operators. For example, the set operation union is very similar to the boolean operator or, as seen in the diagram below.

Set Union Set Union ^[File:Venn0111.svg. (2019, November 15). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 02:37, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Venn0111.svg&oldid=375571745.]

As long as an item is contained in one set or the other, it is included in the union of the sets.

Similarly, the same comparison works for the set operation intersection and the boolean and operator.

Set Intersection Set Intersection ^[File:Venn0001.svg. (2019, November 15). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 02:37, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Venn0001.svg&oldid=375571733.]

Once again, if an item is contained in the first set and the second set, it is contained in the intersection of those sets.

When to Use a Set

A set is a great choice when we know that our program should prevent duplicate items from being added to a data structure. Likewise, if we know we’ll be using some of the specific operations that are unique to sets, then a set is an excellent choice.

Of course, if we aren’t sure that our data structure will only store unique items, we won’t be able to use a set.


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Map Diagram Map Diagram

The last of the linear data structures may seem linear from the outside, but inside it can be quite a bit more complex.

The map data structure is an example of a key-value data structure, also known as a dictionary or associative array. In the simplest case, a map data structure keeps track of a key that uniquely identifies a particular value, and stores that value along with the key in the data structure.

Then, to retrieve that value, the program must simply provide the same key that was used to store it.

In a way, this is very similar to how we use an array, since we provide an array index to store and retrieve items from an array. The only difference is that the key in a map can be any data type! So it is a much more powerful data structure.

In fact, this data structure is one of the key ideas behind modern databases, allowing us to store and retrieve database records based on a unique primary key attached to each row in the database.

Map Operations

A map data structure should support the following operations:

  • put - places a new value in the map using the given key,
  • get - retrieves a value from the map using the given key,
  • entries - gets all of the values in the map,
  • keys - gets all of the keys in the map,
  • containsKey - determines if the given key is in use in the map, and
  • containsValue - determines if the given value is stored in the map.

Later in this course, we’ll devote an entire module to learning how to build our own map data structures and explore these operations in more detail.

Hash Table

Hash Table Diagram Hash Table Diagram ^[File:Hash table 3 1 1 0 1 0 0 SP.svg. (2019, August 21). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 02:46, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Hash_table_3_1_1_0_1_0_0_SP.svg&oldid=362787583.]

One of the most common ways to implement the map data structure is through the use of a hash table. A hash table uses an array to store the values in the map, and uses a special function called a hash function to convert the given key to a simple number. This number represents the array index for the value. In that way, the same key will always find the value that was given.

But what if we have two keys that produce the same array index? In that case, we’ll have to add some additional logic to our map to handle that situation.

When to Use a Map

Maps are great data structures when we need to store and retrieve data using a specific key. Just like we would store data in a database or put items in a numbered box to retrieve later, we can use a map as a general purpose storage and retrieval data structure.

Of course, if our data items don’t have unique keys assigned to them, then using a map may not be the best choice of data structure. Likewise, if each key is a sequential integer, we may be able to use an array just as easily.

Non-Linear Structures

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Graph Graph ^[File:6n-graf.svg. (2020, January 12). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 02:53, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:6n-graf.svg&oldid=386942400.]

The other type of data structure we can use in our programs is the non-linear data structure.

Broadly speaking, non-linear data structures allow us to store data across multiple dimensions, and there may be multiple paths through the data to get from one item to another. In fact, much of the information stored in the data structure has to do with the paths between elements more than the elements themselves.

Non-Linear Data Structure Hierarchy

Non Linear Data Structures Non Linear Data Structures

Just like linear data structures, there are several different types of non-linear data structures. In this case, each one is a more specialized version of the previous one, hence the hierarchy shown above. On the next few pages, we’ll explore each one just a bit to see what they look like.


Graph Data Structure Graph Data Structure ^[File:Directed acyclic graph 2.svg. (2016, May 3). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 03:05, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Directed_acyclic_graph_2.svg&oldid=195167720.]

The most general version of a non-linear data structure is the graph, as shown in the diagram above. A graph is a set of nodes that contain data, as well as a set of edges that link two nodes together. Edges themselves may also contain data.

Graphs are great for storing and visualizing not just data, but also the relationships between data. For example, each node in the graph could represent a city on the map, with the edges representing the travel time between the two cities. Or we could use the nodes in a graph to represent the people in a social network, and the edges represent connections or friendships between two people. There are many possibilities!

When to Use a Graph

Graphs are a great choice when we need to store data and relationships between the data, but we aren’t sure exactly what structures or limitations are present in the data. Since a graph is the most general and flexible non-linear data type, it has the most ability to represent data in a wide variety of ways.


Tree Data Structure Tree Data Structure ^[File:Tree (computer science).svg. (2019, October 20). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 03:13, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Tree_(computer_science).svg&oldid=371240902.]

A tree is a more constrained version of a graph data structure. Specifically, a tree is a graph that can be shown as a hierarchical structure, where each node in the tree is itself the root of a smaller tree. Each node in the tree can have one or more child nodes and exactly one parent node, except for the topmost node or root node, which has no parent nodes.

A tree is very useful for representing data in a hierarchical or sorted format. For example, one common use of a tree data structure is to represent knowledge and decisions that can be made to find particular items. The popular children’s game 20 Questions can be represented as a tree with 20 levels of nodes. Each node represents a particular question that can be asked, and the children of that node represent the possible answers. If the tree only contains yes and no questions, it can still represent up to $2^{20} = 1,408,576$ items!


Another commonly used tree data structure is the trie, which is a special type of tree used to represent textual data. Ever wonder how a computer can store an entire dictionary and quickly spell-check every single word in the language? It actually uses a trie!

Below is a small example of a trie data structure:

Trie Data Structure Trie Data Structure ^[File:Trie example.svg. (2014, March 2). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 03:22, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Trie_example.svg&oldid=117843653.]

This trie contains the words “to”, “tea”, “ted”, “ten”, “i”, “in”, “inn” and “A” in just a few nodes and edges. Imagine creating a trie that could store the entire English language! While it might be large, we can hopefully see how it would be much more efficient to search and store that data in a trie instead of a linear data structure.

When to Use a Tree

A tree is a great choice for a data structure when there is an inherent hierarchy in our data, such that some nodes or elements are naturally “parents” of other elements. Likewise, if we know that each element may only have one parent but many children, a tree becomes an excellent choice. Trees contain several limitations that graphs do not, but they are also very powerful data structures.


Heap Data Structure Heap Data Structure ^[File:Max-Heap.svg. (2014, December 28). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 03:25, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Max-Heap.svg&oldid=144372033.]

The last non-linear data structure we’ll talk about is the heap, which is a specialized version of a tree. In a heap, we try to accomplish a few goals:

  1. Store either the largest or smallest element in the heap at the root node,
  2. Ensure that each parent node is either larger or smaller than all of its children, and
  3. Minimize the height, or number of levels, of the tree.

If we follow those three guidelines, a heap becomes the most efficient data structure for managing a set of data where we always want to get the maximum or minimum value each time we remove an element. These are typically called priority queues, since we remove items based on their priority instead of the order they entered the queue.

Because of this, heaps are very important in creating efficient algorithms that deal with ordered data.

When to Use a Heap

As discussed above, a heap is an excellent data structure for when we need to store elements and then always be able to quickly retrieve either the smallest or largest element in the data structure. Heaps are a very specific version of a tree that specialize in efficiency over everything else, so they are only really good for a few specific uses.


Euclid’s Algorithm Euclid’s Algorithm ^[File:Euclid flowchart.svg. (2019, January 8). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 21:43, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Euclid_flowchart.svg&oldid=334007111.]

The other major topic covered in this course is the use of algorithms to manipulate the data stored in our data structures.

An algorithm is best defined as a finite list of specific instructions for performing a task. In the real world, we see algorithms all the time. A recipe for cooking your favorite dish, instructions for how to fix a broken car, or a method for solving a complex mathematical equation can all be considered examples of an algorithm. The flowchart above shows Euclid’s Algorithm for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers.

In this course, however, we’re going to look specifically at the algorithms and algorithmic techniques that are most commonly used with data structures in computer programming.

Algorithmic Techniques

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An algorithmic technique, sometimes referred to as a methodology or paradigm, is a particular way to design an algorithm. While there are a few commonly used algorithms across different data structures, many times each program may need a unique algorithm, or at least an adaptation of an existing algorithm. to perform its work.

To make these numerous algorithms easier to understand, we can loosely categorize them based on the techniques they use to solve the problem. On the next few pages, we’ll introduce some of the more commonly used algorithmic techniques in this course. Throughout this course, we will learn how to apply many of these techniques when designing algorithms that work with various data structures to accomplish a goal.

Brute Force

The first algorithmic technique we’ll use is the brute force technique. This is the algorithmic technique that most of us are most familiar with, even if we don’t realize it.

Simply put, a brute force algorithm will try all possible solutions to the problem, only stopping when it finds one that is the actual solution. A great example of a brute force algorithm in action is plugging in a USB cable. Many times, we will try one way, and if that doesn’t work, flip it over and try the other. Likewise, if we have a large number of keys but are unsure which one fits in a particular lock, we can just try each key until one works. That’s the essence of the brute force approach to algorithmic design.

Example - Closest Pair

Closest Pair of Points Closest Pair of Points ^[File:Closest pair of points.svg. (2018, October 20). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 22:29, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Closest_pair_of_points.svg&oldid=324759130.]

A great example of a brute force algorithm is finding the closest pair of points in a multidimensional space. This could be as simple as finding the two closest cities on a map, or the two closest stars in a galaxy.

To find the answer, a brute force approach would be to simply calculate the distance between each individual pair of points, and then keep track of the minimum distance found. A pseudocode version of this algorithm would be similar to the following.

MINIMUM = infinity
POINT1 = none
POINT2 = none
loop each POINTA in POINTS
    loop each POINTB in POINTS
        if POINTA != POINTB
            if DISTANCE < MINIMUM
                MINIMUM = DISTANCE
                POINT1 = POINTA
                POINT2 = POINTB
            end if
        end if
    end loop
end loop

Looking at this code, if we have $N$ points, it would take $N^2$ steps to solve the problem! That’s not very efficient, event for a small data set. However, the code itself is really simple, and it is guaranteed to find exactly the best answer, provided we have enough time and a powerful enough computer to run the program.

In the project for this module, we’ll implement a few different brute-force algorithms to solve simple problems. This will help us gain more experience with this particular technique.

Divide and Conquer

The next most common algorithmic technique is divide and conquer. A divide and conquer algorithm works just like it sounds. First, it will divide the problem into at least two or more smaller problems, and then it will try to solve each of those problems individually. It might even try to subdivide those smaller problems again and again to finally get to a small enough problem that it is easy to solve.

A great real-world example of using a divide and conquer approach to solving a problem is when we need to look for something that we’ve lost around the house. Instead of trying to search the entire house, we can subdivide the problem into smaller parts by looking in each room separately. Then, within each room, we can even further subdivide the problem by looking at each piece of furniture individually. By reducing the problem’s size and complexity, it becomes easier to search through each individual piece of furniture in the house, either finding our lost object or eliminating that area as the likely location it will be found.

Sorted List Sorted List

One great example of a divide and conquer algorithm is the binary search algorithm. If we have a list of data that has already been sorted, as seen in the figure above, we can easily find any item in the list using a divide and conquer process.

For example, let’s say we want to find the value $19$ in that list. First, we can look at the item in the middle of the list, which is $23$. Is it our desired number? Unfortunately, it is not. So, we need to figure out how we can use it to divide our input into a smaller problem. Thankfully, we know the list is sorted, so we can use that to our advantage. If our desired number is less than the middle number, we know that it must exist in the first half of the list. Likewise, if it is greater than the middle number, it must be in the second half. In this case, since $19$ is less than $23$, we must only look at the first half of the list.

Sorted List 2 Sorted List 2

Now we can just repeat that process, this time using only the first half of the original list. This is the powerful feature of a divide and conquer algorithm. Once we’ve figured out how to divide our data, we can usually follow the same steps again to solve the smaller problems as well.

Once again, we ask ourselves if $12$, the centermost number in the list, is the one we are looking for. Once again, it is not, but we know that $19$ is greater than $12$, so we’ll need to look in the second half of the list.

Sorted List 3 Sorted List 3

Finally, we have reduced our problem to the simplest, or base case of the problem. Here, we simply need to determine if the single item in the list is the number we are looking for. In this case, it is! So, we can return that our original list did indeed include the number $19$.

We’ll explore many ways of using divide and conquer algorithms in this course, especially when we learn to sort and search through lists of values.


Another algorithmic technique that we’ll learn about is the greedy technique. In a greedy algorithm, the program tries to build a solution one piece at a time. At each step, it will act “greedy” by choosing the piece that it thinks is the best choice for the solution based on the available information. Instead of trying every possible solution like a brute force algorithm or dividing the problem into smaller parts like the divide and conquer approach, a greedy algorithm will just try to construct the one best answer it can.

Greedy Coins Greedy Coins ^[File:Greedy algorithm 36 cents.svg. (2019, April 27). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 23:19, February 8, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Greedy_algorithm_36_cents.svg&oldid=347456702.]


For example, we can use a greedy algorithm to determine the fewest number of coins needed to give change, as shown in the example above. If the customer is owed $36$ cents, and we have coins worth $20$ cents, $10$ cents, $5$ cents and $1$ cent, how many coins are needed to reach $36$ cents?

In a greedy solution, we could choose the coin with the highest value that is less than the change required, give that to the customer, and subtract its value from the remaining change. In this case, it will indeed produce the optimal solution.

In fact, both the United States dollar and the European euro have a system of coins that will always produce the minimum number of coins with a greedy algorithm. So that’s very helpful!

However, does it always work? What if we have a system that has coins worth $30$ cents, $18$ cents $4$ cents, and $1$ cent. Would a greedy algorithm produce the result with the minimum number of coins when making change for $36$ cents?

Let’s try it and see. First, we see that we can use a $30$ cent coin, leaving us with $6$ cents left. Then, we can use a single $4$ cent coin, as well as two $1$ cent coins for a total of $4$ coins: $30 + 4 + 1 + 1 = 36$.

Is that the minimum number of coins?

It turns out that this system includes a coin worth $18$ cents. So, to make $36$ cents, we really only need $2$ coins: $18 + 18 = 36$!

This is the biggest weakness of the greedy approach to algorithm design. A greedy algorithm will find a possible solution, but it is not guaranteed to be the best possible solution. Sometimes it will work just fine, but other times it may produce solutions that are not very good at all. So we always must consider that when creating an algorithm using a greedy technique.


Google Recursion Google Recursion

The next algorithmic technique we’ll discuss is recursion. Recursion is closely related to the divide and conquer method we discussed earlier. However, recursion itself is a very complicated term to understand. It usually presents one of the most difficult challenges for a novice programmer to overcome when learning to write more advanced programs. Don’t worry! We’ll spend an entire module on recursion later in this course.

What is Recursion?

There are many different ways to define recursion. In one sense, recursion is a problem solving technique where the solution to a problem depends on solutions to smaller versions of the problem, very similar to the divide and conquer approach.

However, to most programmers, the term recursion is used to describe a function or method that calls itself inside of its own code. It may seem strange at first, but there are many instances in programming where a method can actually call itself again to help solve a difficult problem. However, writing recursive programs can be tricky at first, since there are many ways to make simple errors using recursion that cause our programs to break.

Mastering recursion takes quite a bit of time and practice, and nearly every programmer has a strong memory of the first time recursion made sense in their minds. So, it is important to make sure we understand it! In fact, it is so notable, that when we search for “recursion” on Google, it helpfully prompts us if we want to search for “recursion” instead, as seen at the top of this page.

Example - Factorial

A great example of a recursive method is calculating the factorial of a number. We may recall from mathematics that the factorial of a number is the product of each integer from 1 up to and including that number. For example, the factorial of $5$, written as $5!$, is calculated as $5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 = 120$

We can easily write a traditional method to calculate the factorial of a number as follows.

    RESULT = 1
    loop I from 1 to N:
        RESULT = RESULT * I
    end loop
    return RESULT
end function

However, we may also realize that the value of $5!$ is the same as $4! * 5$. If we already know how to find the factorial of $4$, we can just multiply that result by $5$ to find the factorial of $5$. As it turns out, there are many problems in the real world that work just like this, and, in fact, many of the data structures we’ll learn about are built in a similar way.

We can rewrite this iterative function to be a recursive function instead.

    if N == 1
        return 1
        return N * RECURSIVE_FACTORIAL(N - 1)
    end if
end function

As we can see, a recursive function includes two important elements, the base case and a recursive case. We need to include the base case so we can stop calling our recursive function over and over again, and actually reach a solution. This is similar to the termination condition of a for loop or while loop. If we forget to include the base case, our program will recurse infinitely!

The second part, the recursive case, is used to reduce the problem to a smaller version of the same problem. In this case, we reduce $N!$ to $N * (N - 1)!$. Then, we can just call our function again to solve the problem $(N - 1)!$, and multiply the result by $N$ to find the solution to $N!$.

So, if we have a problem that can be reduced to a smaller instance of itself, we may be able to use recursion to solve it!

Graph Traversal

Graph Traversals Graph Traversals

Beyond the algorithmic techniques we’ve introduced so far, there are a number of techniques that deal specifically with data stored in non-linear data structures based on graphs. Generally speaking, we can group all of these algorithms under the heading graph traversal algorithms.

A graph traversal algorithm constructs an answer to a problem by moving between nodes in a graph using the graph’s edges, thereby traversing the graph. For example, a graph traversal algorithm could be used by a mapping program to construct a route from one city to another on a map, or to determine friends in common on a social networking website.

Example - Dijkstra’s Algorithm

Dijkstra&rsquo;s Algorithm on a Graph Dijkstra&rsquo;s Algorithm on a Graph ^[File:Dijkstra Animation.gif. (2018, November 24). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 01:45, February 9, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dijkstra_Animation.gif&oldid=329177321.]

A great example of a graph traversal algorithm is Dijkstra’s Algorithm , which can be used to find the shortest path between two selected nodes in a graph. In the image above, we can see the process of running Dijkstra’s Algorithm on a graph that contains just a few nodes.

Dijkstra&rsquo;s Algorithm in a Plane Dijkstra&rsquo;s Algorithm in a Plane ^[File:Dijkstras progress animation.gif. (2016, February 11). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 01:44, February 9, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dijkstras_progress_animation.gif&oldid=187363050.]

Of course, we can use the same approach on any open space, as seen in this animation. Starting at the lower left corner, the algorithm slowly works toward the goal node, but it eventually runs into an obstacle. So, it must find a way around the obstacle while still finding the shortest path to the goal.

Algorithms such as Dijkstra’s Algorithm, and a more refined version called the A* Algorithm are used in many different computer programs to help find a path between two points, especially in video games.

Data Structures and Algorithms Summary

In this chapter, we introduced a number of different data structures that we can use in our programs. In addition, we explored several algorithmic techniques we can use to develop algorithms that manipulate these data structures to allow us to solve complex problems in our code.

Throughout the rest of this course, as well as a subsequent course, we’ll explore many of these data structures and techniques in detail. We hope that introducing them all at the same time here will allow us to compare and contrast each one as we learn more about it, while still keeping in mind that there are many different structures and techniques that will be available to us in the future.