Underscore Templating

Most software are developed by applying the principles of object oriented programming or functional programming. We will practice the latter approach by solving a problem related to presentation and filtering of data. We will use the UnderscoreJs library for the solution.

Programming in a functional way has some advantages over object oriented programming. Side effects and state of objects do not have to be managed, all data are treated as immutable. Therefore your code becomes easier to test, as side effect free functions are generally easier to verify.

Suppose that an array of objects are given. The objects contain data on departures from a given airport. The following fields are given:
– flight id
– destination
– time of departure
– expected time of departure (optional)
– Gate (Optional)
– Status (Optional)

Whenever optional fields are not provided, both the keys and the values are missing.

We will omit the key of missing properties for the sake of this example. In case of static data like this, I would rather suggest providing the key and equating it to null so that we have a way to indicate that the property indicated by the key belongs to the object and only the value is missing. Using an empty string is another option, although it would require an implicit assumption that an empty string is a missing value. Instead of using assumptions, we are normally better off using null which provides a value indicating an absence of value by default.
Using the value undefined for indicating missing values is wrong and should be strictly prohibited.

The following tasks will be solved in this example:

Suppose an array of departure objects is given under the reference departures.
1. Display departures in a tabular format. Use underscore templating.
2. Extract the column names from the departures object. Use these column names in the template instead of hard coded text. The template should contain headers written in natural language (e.g. “Departure time” instead of departureTime).
3. Display an empty string if the value of a field is absent

Let’s start with the table template. The result should look somewhat like console.table( departures ), without the (index) column.

For the sake of simplicity, we will place the template in a script tag and append it to the bottom of the body. Alternatives would be to use a CommonJs module loader such as RequireJs and a template loader plugin.

Once the template is available, all we need to do is create a template function for the table and evaluate it with the departure array:

The header text is currently hard coded. The second part of this example will make the table generic. Column names will be generated based on the key names.

We extract the keys of each object in the departures array with the map function. The result is then flattened, and finally, multiple occurrences of the same key are filtered. Chaining makes the functions more readable. Without chaining, the order of the functions would be the exact opposite as above:

We now need a function that translates the keys into text that we can display in the template:

Finally, the keys should be translated to (key, value) pairs and the result should be passed to the template.

Let’s prepare all data for presentation and change the template. The table columns will become dynamic based on the contents of tableSchema. Replace the value of data and the template:

After evaluating the already prepared template function tableTemplate with data and inserting it into the DOM, the table appears. The order of the columns has changed, but the task did not specify any order anyway.

The third task is about displaying a - instead of non-existing values. Ideally where should this task be done?

An option would be to pass the - value in the data object and replace all falsy values in the template with the formatted value. I would rather suggest preparing the data in advance and leaving the template as simple as possible. Therefore, the - values will be inserted into the departures object.

Let’s create a placeholder object containing all the keys that occur in the table, having '-' values.

Then mix the placeholder object in each object of the array.

Why do we extend the empty object?
_.extend works in a way that it extends its first argument with the remaining list of arguments. If a key is found in multiple objects, the rightmost occurrence will overwrite all others. The composed object is then returned by _.extend. However, on top of returning the result, all the keys-value pairs from the second attribute to the last attribute will be mixed into the first attribute as a side effect. As we should enjoy writing side effect free code, using _.extend with the empty object as the first argument is suggested.

After clarifying how the addEmptyValues function works, the mapping becomes straightforward. ThepresentedDepartures array now holds the data that we want to present. All you need to do is change data.departures to this value:

We have reached the end of this task. It is very important to emphasize that you benefit from this example the most if you implement it yourself. Forget about the “knowledge is power” mantra. Only applied knowledge is power.