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Data and processes in computing
Data and processes in computing

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3.4 Representing data in applications

Suppose that you are designing software for some application. You will be working with a programming language that enables you to communicate instructions to a computer. In this programming language, certain forms of data will already be represented electronically. These will include common forms of data, such as numbers, characters and sequences. In any particular application, you are likely also to be concerned with forms of data that are peculiar to that application. Having identified some form of data that you need to be able to handle, you will then need to represent this in terms of what is available; that is, in terms of forms of data that have already been represented electronically.

As a simple example, imagine that integers, characters and strings are available forms of data, and that you want to represent the days of the week.

One natural form of representation is as strings: “Monday”, “Tuesday”, “Wednesday”, and so on. But other forms of representation are possible. The full names can be inconvenient because they involve a lot of writing, so one might choose to use shortened versions, such as: “Mon”, “Tues”, “Wed”, etc. We could be awkward (from the viewpoint of an English speaker), and use the strings: “Lundi”, “Mardi”, “Mercredi”, and so on. Or we could use integers, and represent Monday as 1, Tuesday as 2, Wednesday as 3, etc. This might be very convenient at times, but one then needs to remember which number represents which day.

There are times when it is important to distinguish between a form of data derived from an application situation and the concrete representation you have chosen for it. We might refer to the idea of the days of the week as an abstraction, in distinction to their representation, perhaps as the strings “Mon”, “Tues”, “Wed”, etc.

Activity 13

A compact form of representation for days of the week might be to use the first character of the name: ‘M’ for Monday, ‘T’ for Tuesday, and so on. Why would this be a bad idea?


Because we could not tell whether ‘T’ meant Tuesday or Thursday (or whether ‘S’ meant Saturday or Sunday). Different entities in the abstract set of application data need to have different representations.

One additional point of importance about any form of data in an application concerns the ways in which we need to be able to manipulate it. We turn to processes on data in the next section.