The above sparse matrix contains only 9 nonzero elements, with 26 zero elements. A sparse matrix csc computer when solving a finite element problem in two dimensions.

The non-zero elements are shown in black. In numerical analysis and computer science, a sparse matrix or sparse array is a matrix in which most of the elements are zero. By contrast, if most of the elements are nonzero, then the matrix is considered dense. Conceptually, sparsity corresponds to systems which are loosely coupled. Consider a line of balls connected by springs from one to the next: this is a sparse system as only adjacent balls are coupled. By contrast, if the same line of balls had springs connecting each ball to all other balls, the system would correspond to a dense matrix. Large sparse matrices often appear in scientific or engineering applications when solving partial differential equations.

When storing and manipulating sparse matrices on a computer, it is beneficial and often necessary to use specialized algorithms and data structures that take advantage of the sparse structure of the matrix. A matrix is typically stored as a two-dimensional array. In the case of a sparse matrix, substantial memory requirement reductions can be realized by storing only the non-zero entries. Depending on the number and distribution of the non-zero entries, different data structures can be used and yield huge savings in memory when compared to the basic approach.

The trade-off is that accessing the individual elements becomes more complex and additional structures are needed to be able to recover the original matrix unambiguously. These are typically used to construct the matrices. Elements that are missing from the dictionary are taken to be zero. The format is good for incrementally constructing a sparse matrix in random order, but poor for iterating over non-zero values in lexicographical order.

One typically constructs a matrix in this format and then converts to another more efficient format for processing. LIL stores one list per row, with each entry containing the column index and the value. Typically, these entries are kept sorted by column index for faster lookup. This is another format good for incremental matrix construction. Ideally, the entries are sorted first by row index and then by column index, to improve random access times. This is another format which is good for incremental matrix construction.