Generic algorithms for 2D spatial fields I: Introduction

This is the first in a series of blog posts about developing generic algorithms in C++ for handling 2D spatial fields. The goal of this series is to explain how we can generalize algorithms handling spatial fields and why that might be useful.

Generic algorithms

Generic algorithms in C++ are templated algorithms that are written in terms of template argument types that are defined later, when the algorithms are instantiated. The C++ Standard Template Library (STL) contains many examples of generic algorithms.

To appreciate the benefits of generic algorithms over non-generic algorithms, we can first take a look at a non-generic algorithm and compare it to a generic one. Let’s define an algorithm for finding the maximum element in a collection:

#include <vector>

std::vector<int>::iterator max_element(
    std::vector<int>::iterator first,
    std::vector<int>::iterator last)
    std::vector<int>::iterator it = first;

    for(++first; first != last; ++first) {
        if(*first > *it) {
            it = first;

    return it;

The algorithm accepts iterators pointing to the first element and end position of the collection. It returns an iterator pointing to the first element with the greatest value, or the end position if the collection is empty.

This algorithm works fine, but only if we want to find the maximum element in a vector of integers. When this is not the case, we end up writing multiple algorithms for multiple argument types. That is the kind of work computers are better at than we. Fortunately, we can ask the compiler to generate such a family of algorithms for us, by using function templates. The generic version of max_element is part of the STL (std::max_element) and has the following prototype (we skip the overload accepting a user-defined comparison function):

    typename ForwardIt>
ForwardIt max_element(ForwardIt first, ForwardIt last);

When we call this generic algorithm like this:

std::vector<int> my_values{1, 5, 2, 4, 3};
auto it = std::max_element(my_values.begin(), my_values.end());

the compiler will instantiate a similar algorithm for us as the non-generic version which we wrote above. But the generic algorithm can also be called with other argument types:

std::list<std::string> my_labels{"amsterdam", "rotterdam", "the hague"};
auto it = std::max_element(my_labels.begin(), my_labels.end());

So, in short, generic algorithms are templates for actual algorithms, with some aspects provided by the caller. The compiler will substitute the missing aspects (the template parameters) with the information provided at the call site and instantiate and compile the final algorithm. Using the generic algorithm in a different context involves calling it with different template argument types.

A generic algorithm cannot be compiled without the caller providing essential information that the algorithm is parameterized on.

One reason for developing generic algorithms is that the person developing the algorithms doesn’t have all the pieces of information required to be able to implement the final algorithm. An important task when designing generic algorithms is to figure out what the pieces of information are that users will want to vary. These will end up as template parameters of the generic algorithms.

Spatial fields

To limit ourselves a bit to data that we know most about we will now turn to spatial fields. The term field is overloaded and has many different meanings. In our case we use the term in the spatial sense. A field is a quantity that (at least in theory) has a value at any point in space. This value varies continuously through space. Here we limit ourselves to 2D fields. Examples of such fields are the atmospheric pressure at a certain height above the earth’s surface, and the elevation of the earth’s surface itself (both projected on a 2D Cartesian plane). To be able to conveniently handle such quantities in the computer, we discretize fields using rasters, which are essentially 2D arrays with some additional information about where each raster is positioned according to some coordinate reference system, and the width and height of the raster cells. For our purposes here it is enough to think of spatial fields as 2D arrays positioned somewhere.


Next, we will turn to the requirements of our generic algorithms.


In this section we will develop a first version of a generic algorithm handling 2D spatial field data. It is good practice to start with a non-generic version, and get a clear idea about the shortcomings, before writing generic code.

For our purposes here we are not interested in the calculations themselves. In fact we are interested in everything but the calculations themselves. The algorithm we will develop will simply raise each cell in a raster to the power of some exponent. Here is a first try:

#include <cmath>
#include "fern/feature/core/raster.h"

fern::Raster<double, 2> pow(
    fern::Raster<double, 2> const& base,
    double exponent)
    size_t const nr_rows{base.shape()[0]};
    size_t const nr_cols{base.shape()[1]};
    fern::Raster<double, 2> result(fern::extents[nr_rows][nr_cols],

    for(size_t r = 0; r < nr_rows; ++r) {
        for(size_t c = 0; c < nr_cols; ++c) {
            result[r] = std::pow(base[r], exponent);

    return result;

We use the Raster class template from Geoneric‘s Fern library, but this could be any class with which we can model a raster. The details of this class’ implementation don’t matter here.

Some observations and drawbacks of this implementation:

  • The type of the individual elements (further on we call this the value type) in the base raster are fixed to double. This is limiting the caller. She might prefer to pass in float or long double values. The same is true for exponent.
  • The type of the base argument (the data type) is fixed to Raster<double, 2>. This is also limiting the caller. She has to use our Raster type while she may have a type for modelling rasters that fits her needs better.
  • The exponent is fixed to a double, but we may want to be able to pass a raster instead of a single number. When we pass a raster for exponent, we expect each cell in base to be raised by the corresponding cell in exponent.
  • The result is returned, which is OK if Raster supports move semantics. Otherwise it is definitely not OK. We don’t want to copy possibly very large rasters. Furthermore, in C++ return types are not considered in overload resolution which limits our possibilities to make the return type configurable by the caller. This will be explained in more detail in the next post.
  • Often, algorithms have a limited domain of valid input values. For example, a negative finite base and a non-integer finite exponent are considered out of domain by the std::pow algorithm. What should happen if an algorithm’s input argument contains values that are not part of the algorithm’s valid domain of input values?
  • Similarly, output value types have a limited range of values they can represent. For example, an int8_t cannot hold values larger than $latex \frac{2^8}{2} – 1$. What should happen if an algorithm calculates values that are not part of the valid range of values?
  • In the algorithm above, we perform a calculation for each cell. In reality, rasters often contain cells with undefined values. Depending on the field that is represented by the raster, this may be due to clouds, measurement errors, errors in previous calculations, etc. We clearly need a way to test whether or not a cell from an input raster contains a valid value or not.
  • Given the previous observations, we also need a way to mark that an output raster cell does not contain a valid value. If an input raster cell contains an invalid value we want to be able to mark the corresponding cell in the output raster as invalid too. Also, if we are able to detect out-of-domain and out-of-range errors, we want to be able to mark the corresponding output raster cells as invalid.

Given the non-generic algorithm and the observations, we are now better equipped to list the requirements of a generic algorithm handling spatial fields:

  • It must be possible for the user to pick the data type and value type of the input and output arguments. The data type does not need to be picked from a fixed set of types. The user must be able to use her own types.
  • It must be possible for the user to ‘explain’ to the algorithm how to:
    • detect invalid input raster cell values
    • mark invalid output raster cell values
    • handle out of domain input values
    • handle out of range output values
  • However the above requirements are met, the performance of the algorithm must be equal to a handwritten non-generic algorithm.

In the next posts, we are going to tackle each of these requirements in turn.

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