On this page:
8.1 Lists as Collective Data
8.2 Sets as Collective Data
8.2.1 Picking Elements from Sets
8.2.2 Computing with Sets
8.3 Combining Structured and Collective Data

8 Collections of Structured Data

    8.1 Lists as Collective Data

    8.2 Sets as Collective Data

      8.2.1 Picking Elements from Sets

      8.2.2 Computing with Sets

    8.3 Combining Structured and Collective Data

As we were looking at structured data [Introduction to Structured Data], we came across several situations where we have not one but many data: not one song but a playlist of them, not one animal but a zoo full of them, not one notification but several, not just one message (how we wish!) but many in our inbox, and so on. In general, then, we rarely have just a single structured datum: One notable exception: consider the configuration or preference information for a system. This might be stored in a file and updated through a user interface. Even though there is (usually) only one configuration at a time, it may have so many pieces that we won’t want to clutter our program with a large number of variables; instead, we might create a structure representing the configuration, and load just one instance of it. In effect, what would have been unconnected variables now become a set of linked fields. if we know we have only one, we might just have a few separate variables representing the pieces without going to the effort of creating and taking apart a structure. In general, therefore, we want to talk about collections of structured. Here are more examples:
  • The set of messages matching a tag.

  • The list of messages in a conversation.

  • The set of friends of a user.

Do Now!

How are collective data different from structured data?

In structured data, we have a fixed number of possibly different kinds of values. In collective data, we have a variable number the same kind of value. For instance, we don’t say up front how many songs must be in a playlist or how many pages a user can have; but every one of them must be a song or a page. (A page may, of course, may be conditionally defined, but ultimately everything in the collection is still a page.)

Observe that we’ve mentioned both sets and lists above. The difference between a set and a list is that a set has no order, but a list has an order. This distinction is not vital now but we will return to it later [REF].

Of course, sets and lists are not the only kinds of collective data we can have. Here are some more:
  • A family tree of people.

  • The filesystem on your computer.

  • A seating chart at a party.

  • A social network of pages.

and so on. For the most part these are just as easy to program and manipulate as the earlier collective data once we have some experience, though some of them [REF] can involve more subtlety.

We have already seen tables [Introduction to Tabular Data], which are a form of collective, structured data. Now we will look at a few more, and how to program them.

8.1 Lists as Collective Data

We have already seen one example of a collection in some depth before: lists. A list is not limited to numbers or strings; it can contain any kind of value, including structured ones. For instance, using our examples from earlier [Defining and Creating Structured Data], we can make a list of songs:

song-list = [list: lver, so, wnkkhs]

This is a three-element list where each element is a song:

check: song-list.length() is 3 song-list.first is lver end

Thus, what we have seen earlier about building functions over lists [Processing Lists] applies here too. To illustrate, suppose we wish to write the function oldest-song-age, which consumes a list of songs and produces the oldest song in the list. (There may be more than one song from the same year; the age—by our measure—of all those songs will be the same. If this happens, we just pick one of the songs from the list. Because of this, however, it would be more accurate to say “an” rather than “the” oldest song.)

Let’s work through this with examples. To keep our examples easy to write, instead of writing out the full data for the songs, we’ll refer to them just by their variable names. Clearly, the oldest song in our list is bound to lvar.

oldest-song([list: lver, so, wnkkhs]) is lvar oldest-song([list: so, wnkkhs]) is wnkkhs oldest-song([list: wnkkhs]) is wnkkhs oldest-song([list: ]) is ???

What do we write in the last case? Recall that we saw this problem earlier [my-max: Examples]: there is no answer in the empty case. In fact, the computation here is remarkably similar to that of my-max, because it is essentially the same computation, just asking for the minimum year (which would make the song the oldest).

From our examples, we can see a solution structure echoing that of my-max. For the empty list, we signal an error. Otherwise, we compute the oldest song in the rest of the list, and compare its year against that of the first. Whichever has the older year is the answer.

fun oldest-song(sl :: List<ITunesSong>) -> ITunesSong: cases (List) sl: | empty => raise("not defined for empty song lists") | link(f, r) => cases (List) r: | empty => f | else => osr = oldest-song(r) if osr.year < f.year: osr else: f end end end end

Note that there is no guarantee there will be only oldest song, and this is reflected in the possibility that osr.year may equal f.year. However, our problem statement allowed us to pick just one such song, which is what we’ve done.

Do Now!

Modify the solution above to oldest-song-age, which computes the age of the oldest song(s).

Haha, just kidding! You shouldn’t modify the previous solution at all! Instead, you should leave it alone—it may come in handy for other purposes—and instead build a new function to use it:

fun oldest-song-age(sl :: List<ITunesSong>) -> Number: os = oldest-song(sl) song-age(os) where: oldest-song-age(song-list) is 71 end

8.2 Sets as Collective Data

As we’ve already seen, for some problems we don’t care about the order of inputs, nor about duplicates. Here are more examples where we don’t care about order or duplicates:
  • Your Web browser records which Web pages you’ve visited, and some Web sites use this information to color visited links differently than ones you haven’t seen. This color is typically independent of how many times you have visited the page.

  • During an election, a poll agent might record that you have voted, but does not need to record how many times you have voted, and does not care about the order in which people vote.

For such problems a list is a bad fit relative to a set. Here we will see how Pyret’s built-in sets work. Later [Sets Appeal] we will see how we can build sets for ourselves.

First, we can define sets just as easily as we can lists:

song-set = [set: lver, so, wnkkhs]

Of course, due to the nature of the language’s syntax, we have to list the elements in some order. Does it matter?

Do Now!

How can we tell whether Pyret cares about the order?

Here’s the simplest way to check:

check: song-set2 = [set: so, wnkkhs, lver] song-set is song-set2 end

If we want to be especially cautious, we can write down all the other orderings of the elements as well, and see that Pyret doesn’t care.


How many different orders are there?

Similarly for duplicates:

check: song-set3 = [set: lver, so, wnkkhs, so, so, lver, so] song-set is song-set3 set-size(song-set3) is 3 end

We can again try several different kinds of duplication and confirm that sets ignore them.

8.2.1 Picking Elements from Sets

This lack of an ordering, however, poses a problem. With lists, it was meaningful to talk about the “first” and corresponding “rest”. By definition, with sets there is not “first” element. In fact, Pyret does not even offer fields similar to first and rest. In its place is something a little more accurate but complex.

The function set-pick returns a random element of a set. It produces a value of type Pick (which we get from the pick library). When we pick an element, there are two possibilities. One is that the set is empty (analogous to a list being empty), which gives us a pick-none value. The other option is called pick-some, which gives us an actual member of the set.

The pick-some variant of Pick has two fields, not one. To understand why takes a moment’s work. Let’s explore it by choosing an element of a set:

fun an-elt(s :: Set): cases (Pick) set-pick(s): | pick-none => error("empty set") | pick-some(e, r) => e end end

(Notice that we aren’t using the r field in the pick-some case.)

Do Now!

Can you guess why we didn’t write examples for an-elt?

Do Now!

Run an-elt(song-set). What element do you get?

Run it again. Run it five more times.

Do you get the same element every time?

No you don’t!Well, actually, it’s impossible to be certain you don’t. There is a very, very small likelihood you get the exact same element on every one of six runs. If it happens to you, keep running it more times! Pyret is designed to not always return the same element when picking from a set. This is on purpose: it’s to drive home the random nature of choosing from a set, and to prevent your program from accidentally depending on a particular order that Pyret might use.

Do Now!

Given that an-elt does not return a predictable element, what if any tests can we write for it?

Observe that though we can’t predict which element an-elt will produce, we do not it will produce an element of the set. Therefore, what we can write are tests that ensure the resulting element is a member of the set—though in this case, that would not be particularly surprising.

8.2.2 Computing with Sets

Once we have picked an element from a set, it’s often useful to obtain the set consisting of the remaining elements. We have already seen that choosing the first field of a pick-some is similar to taking the “first” of a set. We therefore want a way to get the “rest” of the set. However, we want the rest to what we obtain after excluding this particular “first”. That’s what the second field of a pick-some is: what’s left of the set.

Given this, we can write functions over sets that look roughly analogous to functions over lists. For instance, suppose we want to compute the size of a set. The function looks similar to my-len [Some Example Exercises]:

fun my-set-size(shadow s :: Set) -> Number: cases (Pick) s.pick(): | pick-none => 0 | pick-some(e, r) => 1 + my-set-size(r) end end

Though the process of deriving this is similar to that we used for my-len, the random nature of picking elements makes it harder to write examples that the actual function’s behavior will match.

8.3 Combining Structured and Collective Data

As the above examples illustrate, a program’s data organization will often involve multiple kinds of compound data, often deeply intertwined. Let’s first think of these in pairs.


Come up with examples that combine:
  • structured and conditional data,

  • structured and collective data, and

  • conditional and collective data.

You’ve actually seen examples of each of these above. Identify them.

Finally, we might even have all three at once. For instance, a filesystem is usually a list (collective) of files and folders (conditional) where each file has several attributes (structured). Similarly, a social network has a set of pages (collective) where each page is for a person, organization, or other thing (conditional), and each page has several attributes (structured). Therefore, as you can see, combinations of these arise naturally in all kinds of applications that we deal with on a daily basis.


Take three of your favorite Web sites or apps. Identify the kinds of data they present. Classify these as structured, conditional, and collective. How do they combine these data?