How the Post Office uses parallel algorithms to sort your mail

Every year in Britain, more than 15 billion (that’s 15 followed by 9 zeros!) letters and parcels are sent through the post. That’s around 40 million pieces of post per day!

The Post Office has to make sure that all of the letters and parcels gets to their destination as soon as possible. To do this, the Sorting Office needs to have a system that lets it sort many pieces of post at the same time. For example, if there is only one sorting machine, they can only sort one piece of post at a time. However, if there are five machines, they can sort through the post much faster! This is called parallelism.

This is what EPCC does. At EPCC, we use parallelism to build very fast computers. People can then use these to solve difficult tasks, like designing cars, modelling the universe, seeing how molecules interact or predicting the weather – things that are too small, too big, too fast or take to long to do experiments on. Each computer is made of lots of smaller computer 'brains', called cores. Our biggest computer, ARCHER, has 118,080 cores and can do 1 600 000 000 000 000 calculations every second (that is a 16 with 14 zeros after it)! We use this to build programs that can simulate complicated situations very quickly, like air flowing over a car.

In this game, you can see for yourself how parallelism makes difficult tasks much easier, and faster.

Sorting Algorithms

Computers, phones and tablets read in and write out lots of data. Sorting this data is essential.

You may for example want to order your data, with the largest values first.

Good sorting algorithms make your computer code run faster and take up less spaceThis can help you fit more games on your phone!

Parallel Sorting Algorithms

Sorting data is also essential on supercomptuers. On a supercomputer you need to carry out your sort on many cores. Hence you need a parallel sorting algorithm. 

Examples include:

  • Parallel Quicksort (information on this coming soon!)
  • Bubble sort (information on this coming soon!)
  • Radix sort (information on this coming soon!)

An example: The parallel bucket sort

A set of numbers can be sorted using a bucket sort. This starts by separating the numbers into groups – called buckets.

The numbers inside each bucket are then sorted. Each bucket can be sorted in parallel. This is similar to how we sort on a supercomputer one core sorts a set of data at the same time that another core sorts a different set of data.

The post sorting game

Set up your demo

To set up your post sorting game, download the address labels and stamps templates: 

          

  1. Print address labels: print the address labels on Avery No. L7163 post label pages (or equivalent). This is ‘one set’ of labels. Ideally print three to five copies of these first three pages, resulting in multiple sets.
  2. Print the stamps. Print the ARCHER stamps to complete your letters on Avery No. L4736REV-25 labels (or equivalent). There are 48 stamps per page. Print enough so you have one per address label (for three full sets of address pages you will need 2 sheets). Spare labels can be given out as badges.
  3. Set up up your envelopes. Stick an address label and stamp on each envelope. One full set is 36 addresses, so for three sets you will need 144 envelopes, for five setups you will need 216 envelopes.
  4. Gather sorting boxes.

Source 12 boxes to sort your envelopes into. Examples include the lids of photocopier paper boxes. These will be labelled

Source 5 boxes/bags to sort envelopes from. Examples include a simple bag or the bottom of photocopier paper boxes. These are left unlabelled.

  1. Label your boxes. Label each sorting box, labelling one box with each of the following:
  • KW
  • KW1
  • KW2
  • KW3
  • EH
  • EH1
  • EH2
  • EH3
  • SN
  • SN1
  • SN2
  • SN3
  • TR
  • TR1
  • TR2
  • TR3

Playing the game: A single-person post sort

  • Arrange your KW1, KW2, KW3, EH1, EH2, EH3, SN1, SN2, SN3, TR1, TR2, TR3 boxes on a table.
  • Put all unsorted envelopes into an unlabelled box/bag.
  • One person: taking one envelope at a time out of the bag sort the envelopes into the boxes based on the first two letters  and first number of the postcode.

Question: How many envelopes can you sort in 60 seconds? 

Question: How could you sort more envelopes in the same amount of time? 

Question: How could you use multiple people to do this sort?

Playing the game: A two stage sort using multiple people

This activity introduces the concept of parallel sorting. The task is now split into two 30 second jobs, instead of one 60 job and uses four people that we will call A, B, C, D and E.

Step one: one person for 30 seconds

Arrange your KW, EH, SN and TR boxes on a table.

Put all unsorted envelopes into an unlabelled box/bag.

Person A: taking one envelope at a time out of the bag sort the envelopes into the boxes based on the first two letters of the postcode.

Question: How many envelopes can you sort in 30 seconds? 

Step two: four people for 30 seconds

Arrange your KW1, KW2, KW3, EH1, EH2, EH3, SN1, SN2, SN3, TR1, TR2, TR3 boxes on a table.

At the same time:

  • Person B: taking one envelope at a time from box KW sort the envelopes into the boxes based on the first number of the postcode into boxes KW1, KW2, KW3.
  • Person C: taking one envelope at a time from box EH sort the envelopes into the boxes based on the first number of the postcode into boxes EH1, EH2, EH3.
  • Person D: taking one envelope at a time from box SN sort the envelopes into the boxes based on the first number of the postcode into boxes SN1, SN2, SN3.
  • Person E: taking one envelope at a time from box TR sort the envelopes into the boxes based on the first number of the postcode into boxes TR1, TR2, TR3.

Question: How many envelopes do People B, C, D and E sort in 30 seconds? 

Question: How does this compare to a single person sort?

Question: How could you make this more efficient? (consider placement of boxes, overlapping step one and step two etc.) 

Question: What happens when you add more friends? Could you parallelise this sort further by sorting by the second number as well? What would be the benefit of this? Can you plot the number of letters sorted against the number of friends helping in the sort?

Contact us

Lorna Smith
+44 (0)131 650 5030
l.smith@epcc.ac.uk