Most people feel much better when they organize their personal spaces. Whether that’s an office, living room, or bedroom, it feels good to have everything arranged. Besides giving you a sense of peace and satisfaction, a neatly-organized space ensures you can find everything you need with ease.
The same goes for programs. They need data structures, i.e., ways of organizing data to ensure optimized processing, storage, and retrieval. Without data structures, it would be impossible to create efficient, functional programs, meaning the entire computer science field wouldn’t have its foundation.
Not all data structures are created equal. You have primitive and non-primitive structures, with the latter being divided into several subgroups. If you want to be a better programmer and write reliable and efficient codes, you need to understand the key differences between these structures.
In this introduction to data structures, we’ll cover their classifications, characteristics, and applications.
Primitive Data Structures
Let’s start our journey with the simplest data structures. Primitive data structures (simple data types) consist of characters that can’t be divided. They aren’t a collection of data and can store only one type of data, hence their name. Since primitive data structures can be operated (manipulated) directly according to machine instructions, they’re invaluable for the transmission of information between the programmer and the compiler.
There are four basic types of primitive data structures:
Integers store positive and negative whole numbers (along with the number zero). As the name implies, integer data types use integers (no fractions or decimal points) to store precise information. If a value doesn’t belong to the numerical range integer data types support, the server won’t be able to store it.
The main advantages here are space-saving and simplicity. With these data types, you can perform arithmetic operations and store quantities and counts.
Floats are the opposite of integers. In this case, you have a “floating” number or a number that isn’t whole. They offer more precision but still have a high speed. Systems that have very small or extremely large numbers use floats.
Next, you have characters. As you may assume, character data types store characters. The characters can be a string of uppercase and/or lowercase single or multibyte letters, numbers, or other symbols that the code set “approves.”
Booleans are the third type of data supported by computer programs (the other two are numbers and letters). In this case, the values are positive/negative or true/false. With this data type, you have a binary, either/or division, so you can use it to represent values as valid or invalid.
Linear Data Structures
Let’s move on to non-primitive data structures. The first on our agenda are linear data structures, i.e., those that feature data elements arranged sequentially. Every single element in these structures is connected to the previous and the following element, thus creating a unique linear arrangement.
Linear data structures have no hierarchy; they consist of a single level, meaning the elements can be retrieved in one run.
We can distinguish several types of linear data structures:
- Linked lists
Arrays are collections of data elements belonging to the same type. The elements are stored at adjoining locations, and each one can be accessed directly, thanks to the unique index number.
Arrays are the most basic data structures. If you want to conquer the data science field, you should learn the ins and outs of these structures.
They have many applications, from solving matrix problems to CPU scheduling, speech processing, online ticket booking systems, etc.
Linked lists store elements in a list-like structure. However, the nodes aren’t stored at contiguous locations. Here, every node is connected (linked) to the subsequent node on the list with a link (reference).
One of the best real-life applications of linked lists is multiplayer games, where the lists are used to keep track of each player’s turn. You also use linked lists when viewing images and pressing right or left arrows to go to the next/previous image.
The basic principles behind stacks are LIFO (last in, first out) or FILO (first in, last out). These data structures stick to a specific order of operations and entering and retrieving information can be done only from one end. Stacks can be implemented through linked lists or arrays and are parts of many algorithms.
With stacks, you can evaluate and convert arithmetic expressions, check parentheses, process function calls, undo/redo your actions in a word processor, and much more.
In these linear structures, the principle is FIFO (first in, first out). The data the program stores first will be the first to process. You could say queues work on a first-come, first-served basis. Unlike stacks, queues aren’t limited to entering and retrieving information from only one end. Queues can be implemented through arrays, linked lists, or stacks.
There are three types of queues:
You use these data structures for job scheduling, CPU scheduling, multiple file downloading, and transferring data.
Non-Linear Data Structures
Non-linear and linear data structures are two diametrically opposite concepts. With non-linear structures, you don’t have elements arranged sequentially. This means there isn’t a single sequence that connects all elements. In this case, you have elements that can have multiple paths to each other. As you can imagine, implementing non-linear data structures is no walk in the park. But it’s worth it. These structures allow multi-level storage (hierarchy) and offer incredible memory efficiency.
Here are three types of non-linear data structures we’ll cover:
- Hash tables
Naturally, trees have a tree-like structure. You start at the root node, which is divided into other nodes, and end up with leaf modes. Every node has one “parent” but can have multiple “children,” depending on the structure. All nodes contain some type of data.
Tree structures provide easier access to specific data and guarantee efficiency.
Three structures are often used in game development and indexing databases. You’ll also use them in machine learning, particularly decision analysis.
The two most important elements of every graph are vertices (nodes) and edges. A graph is essentially a finite collection of vertices connected by edges. Although they may look simple, graphs can handle the most complex tasks. They’re used in operating systems and the World Wide Web.
You unconsciously use graphs with Google Maps. When you want to know the directions to a specific location, you enter it in the map. At that point, the location becomes the node, and the path that guides you is the edge.
With hash tables, you store information in an associative manner. Every data value gets its unique index value, meaning you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for.
This may sound complex, so let’s check out a real-life example. Think of a library with over 30,000 books. Every book gets a number, and the librarian uses this number when trying to locate it or learn more details about it.
That’s exactly how hash tables work. They make the search process and insertion much faster, which is why they have a wide array of applications.
Specialized Data Structures
When data structures can’t be classified as either linear or non-linear, they’re called specialized data structures. These structures have unique applications and principles and are used to represent specialized objects.
Here are three examples of these structures:
- Bloom Filter
- Spatial Data
No, this isn’t a typo. “Trie” is derived from “retrieval,” so you can guess its purpose. A trie stores data which you can represent as graphs. It consists of nodes and edges, and every node contains a character that comes after the word formed by the parent node. This means that a key’s value is carried across the entire trie.
A bloom filter is a probabilistic data structure. You use it to analyze a set and investigate the presence of a specific element. In this case, “probabilistic” means that the filter can determine the absence but can result in false positives.
Spatial Data Structures
These structures organize data objects by position. As such, they have a key role in geographic systems, robotics, and computer graphics.
Choosing the Right Data Structure
Data structures can have many benefits, but only if you choose the right type for your needs. Here’s what to consider when selecting a data structure:
- Data size and complexity – Some data structures can’t handle large and/or complex data.
- Access patterns and frequency – Different structures have different ways of accessing data.
- Required data structure operations and their efficiency – Do you want to search, insert, sort, or delete data?
- Memory usage and constraints – Data structures have varying memory usages. Plus, every structure has limitations you’ll need to get acquainted with before selecting it.
Jump on the Data Structure Train
Data structures allow you to organize information and help you store and manage it. The mechanisms behind data structures make handling vast amounts of data much easier. Whether you want to visualize a real-world challenge or use structures in game development, image viewing, or computer sciences, they can be useful in various spheres.
As the data industry is evolving rapidly, if you want to stay in the loop with the latest trends, you need to be persistent and invest in your knowledge continuously.
Soon, we will be launching four new Degrees for AY24-25 at OPIT – Open Institute of Technology
I want to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Product Definition process that has shaped these upcoming programs.
🚀 Phase 1: Discovery (Late May – End of July)
Our journey began with intensive brainstorming sessions with OPIT’s Academic Board (Francesco Profumo, Lorenzo Livi, Alexiei Dingli, Andrea Pescino, Rosario Maccarrone) . We also conducted 50+ interviews with tech and digital entrepreneurs (both from startups and established firms), academics and students. Finally, we deep-dived into the “Future of Jobs 2023” report by the World Economic Forum and other valuable research.
🔍 Phase 2: Selection – Crafting Our Roadmap (July – August)
Our focus? Introducing new degrees addressing critical workforce shortages and upskilling/reskilling needs for the next 5-10 years, promising significant societal impact and a broad market reach.
Our decision? To channel our energies on full BScs and MScs, and steer away from shorter courses or corporate-focused offerings. This aligns perfectly with our core mission.
💡 Focus Areas Unveiled!
We’re thrilled to concentrate on pivotal fields like:
- Advanced AI
- Digital Business
- Metaverse & Gaming
- Cloud Computing (less “glamorous”, but market demand is undeniable).
🎓 Phase 3: Definition – Shaping the Degrees (August – November)
With an expert in each of the above fields, and with the strong collaboration of our Academic Director, Prof. Lorenzo Livi , we embarked on a rigorous “drill-down process”. Our goal? To meld modern theoretical knowledge with cutting-edge competencies and skills. This phase included interviewing over 60+ top academics, industry professionals, and students and get valuable, program-specific, insights from our Marketing department.
🌟 Phase 4: Accreditation and Launch – The Final Stretch
We’re currently in the accreditation process, gearing up for the launch. The focus is now shifting towards marketing, working closely with Greta Maiocchi and her Marketing and Admissions team. Together, we’re translating our new academic offering into a compelling value proposition for the market.
Stay tuned for more updates!
Far from being a temporary educational measure that came into its own during the pandemic, online education is providing students from all over the world with new ways to learn. That’s proven by statistics from Oxford Learning College, which point out that over 100 million students are now enrolled in some form of online course.
The demand for these types of courses clearly exists.
In fact, the same organization indicates that educational facilities that introduce online learning see a 42% increase in income – on average – suggesting that the demand is there.
Enter the Open Institute of Technology (OPIT).
Delivering three online courses – a Bachelor’s degree in computer science and two Master’s degrees – with more to come, OPIT is positioning itself as a leader in the online education space. But why is that? After all, many institutions are making the jump to e-learning, so what separates OPIT from the pack?
Here, you’ll discover the answers as you delve into the five reasons why you should trust OPIT for your online education.
Reason 1 – A Practical Approach
OPIT focuses on computer science education – a field in which theory often dominates the educational landscape. The organization’s Rector, Professor Francesco Profumo, makes this clear in a press release from June 2023. He points to a misalignment between what educators are teaching computer science students and what the labor market actually needs from those students as a key problem.
“The starting point is the awareness of the misalignment,” he says when talking about how OPIT structures its online courses. “That so-called mismatch is generated by too much theory and too little practical approach.” In other words, students in many classes spend far too much time learning the “hows” and “whys” behind computerized systems without actually getting their hands dirty with real work that gives them practical experience in using those systems.
OPIT takes a different approach.
It has developed a didactic approach that focuses far more on the practical element than other courses. That approach is delivered through a combination of classroom sessions – such as live lessons and masterclasses – and practical work offered through quizzes and exercises that mimic real-world situations.
An OPIT student doesn’t simply learn how computers work. They put their skills into practice through direct programming and application, equipping them with skills that are extremely attractive to major employers in the tech field and beyond.
Reason 2 – Flexibility Combined With Support
Flexibility in how you study is one of the main benefits of any online course.
You control when you learn and how you do it, creating an environment that’s beneficial to your education rather than being forced into a classroom setting with which you may not feel comfortable. This is hardly new ground. Any online educational platform can claim that it offers “flexibility” simply because it provides courses via the web.
Where OPIT differs is that it combines that flexibility with unparalleled support bolstered by the experiences of teachers employed from all over the world. The founder and director of OPIT, Riccardo Ocleppo, sheds more light on this difference in approach when he says, “We believe that education, even if it takes place physically at a distance, must guarantee closeness on all other aspects.” That closeness starts with the support offered to students throughout their entire study period.
Tutors are accessible to students at all times. Plus, every participant benefits from weekly professor interactions, ensuring they aren’t left feeling stuck on an educational “island” and have to rely solely on themselves for their education. OPIT further counters the potential isolation that comes with online learning with a Student Support team to guide students through any difficulties they may have with their courses.
In this focus on support, OPIT showcases one of its main differences from other online platforms.
You don’t simply receive course material before being told to “get on with it.” You have the flexibility to learn at your own pace while also having a support structure that serves as a foundation for that learning.
Reason 3 – OPIT Can Adapt to Change Quickly
The field of computer science is constantly evolving.
In the 2020s alone, we’ve seen the rise of generative AI – spurred on by the explosive success of services like ChatGPT – and how those new technologies have changed the way that people use computers.
Riccardo Ocleppo has seen the impact that these constant evolutions have had on students. Before founding OPIT, he was an entrepreneur who received first-hand experience of the fact that many traditional educational institutions struggle to adapt to change.
“Traditional educational institutions are very slow to adapt to this wave of new technologies and trends within the educational sector,” he says. He points to computer science as a particular issue, highlighting the example of a board in Italy of which he is a member. That board – packed with some of the country’s most prestigious tech universities – spent three years eventually deciding to add just two modules on new and emerging technologies to their study programs.
That left Ocleppo feeling frustrated.
When he founded OPIT, he did so intending to make it an adaptable institution in which courses were informed by what the industry needs. Every member of its faculty is not only a superb teacher but also somebody with experience working in industry. Speaking of industry, OPIT collaborates with major companies in the tech field to ensure its courses deliver the skills that those organizations expect from new candidates.
This confronts frustration on both sides. For companies, an OPIT graduate is one for which they don’t need to bridge a “skill gap” between what they’ve learned and what the company needs. For you, as a student, it means that you’re developing skills that make you a more desirable prospect once you have your degree.
Reason 4 – OPIT Delivers Tier One Education
Despite their popularity, online courses can still carry a stigma of not being “legitimate” in the face of more traditional degrees. Ocleppo is acutely aware of this fact, which is why he’s quick to point out that OPIT always aims to deliver a Tier One education in the computer science field.
“That means putting together the best professors who create superb learning material, all brought together with a teaching methodology that leverages the advancements made in online teaching,” he says.
OPIT’s degrees are all accredited by the European Union to support this approach, ensuring they carry as much weight as any other European degree. It’s accredited by both the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and the Malta Qualification Framework (MQF), with all of its courses having full legal value throughout Europe.
It’s also here where we see OPIT’s approach to practicality come into play via its course structuring.
Take its Bachelor’s degree in computer science as an example.
Yes, that course starts with a focus on theoretical and foundational knowledge. Building a computer and understanding how the device processes instructions is vital information from a programming perspective. But once those foundations are in place, OPIT delivers on its promises of covering the most current topics in the field.
Machine learning, cloud computing, data science, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity – all valuable to employers – are taught at the undergraduate level. Students benefit from a broader approach to computer science than most institutions are capable of, rather than bogging them down in theory that serves little practical purpose.
Reason 5 – The Learning Experience
Let’s wrap up by honing in on what it’s actually like for students to learn with OPIT.
After all, as Ocleppo points out, one of the main challenges with online education is that students rarely have defined checkpoints to follow. They can start feeling lost in the process, confronted with a metaphorical ocean of information they need to learn, all in service of one big exam at the end.
Alternatively, some students may feel the temptation to not work through the materials thoroughly, focusing instead on passing a final exam. The result is that those students may pass, but they do so without a full grasp of what they’ve learned – a nightmare for employers who already have skill gaps to handle.
OPIT confronts both challenges by focusing on a continuous learning methodology. Assessments – primarily practical – take place throughout the course, serving as much-needed checkpoints for evaluating progress. When combined with the previously mentioned support that OPIT offers, this approach has led to courses that are created from scratch in service of the student’s actual needs.
Choose OPIT for Your Computer Science Education
At OPIT, the focus lies as much on helping students to achieve their dream careers as it does on teaching them. All courses are built collaboratively. With a dedicated faculty combined with major industry players, such as Google and Microsoft, it delivers materials that bridge the skill gap seen in the computer science field today.
There’s also more to come.
Beyond the three degrees OPIT offers, the institution plans to add more. Game development, data science, and cloud computing, to name a few, will receive dedicated degrees in the coming months, accentuating OPIT’s dedication to adapting to the continuous evolution of the computer science industry. Discover OPIT today – your journey into computing starts with the best online education institution available.