We propose a framework to study the effect of local recovery requirements of codeword symbols on the dimension of linear codes, based on a combinatorial proxy that we call visible rank. The locality constraints of a linear code are stipulated by a matrix H of ⋆’s and 0’s (which we call a "stencil"), whose rows correspond to the local parity checks (with the ⋆’s indicating the support of the check). The visible rank of H is the largest r for which there is a r × r submatrix in H with a unique generalized diagonal of ⋆’s. The visible rank yields a field-independent combinatorial lower bound on the rank of H and thus the co-dimension of the code.

We point out connections of the visible rank to other notions in the literature such as unique restricted graph matchings, matroids, spanoids, and min-rank. In particular, we prove a rank-nullity type theorem relating visible rank to the rank of an associated construct called symmetric spanoid, which was introduced by Dvir, Gopi, Gu, and Wigderson [Zeev Dvir et al., 2020]. Using this connection and a construction of appropriate stencils, we answer a question posed in [Zeev Dvir et al., 2020] and demonstrate that symmetric spanoid rank cannot improve the currently best known Õ(n^{(q-2)/(q-1)}) upper bound on the dimension of q-query locally correctable codes (LCCs) of length n. This also pins down the efficacy of visible rank as a proxy for the dimension of LCCs.

We also study the t-Disjoint Repair Group Property (t-DRGP) of codes where each codeword symbol must belong to t disjoint check equations. It is known that linear codes with 2-DRGP must have co-dimension Ω(√n) (which is matched by a simple product code construction). We show that there are stencils corresponding to 2-DRGP with visible rank as small as O(log n). However, we show the second tensor of any 2-DRGP stencil has visible rank Ω(n), thus recovering the Ω(√n) lower bound for 2-DRGP. For q-LCC, however, the k'th tensor power for k ⩽ n^{o(1)} is unable to improve the Õ(n^{(q-2)/(q-1)}) upper bound on the dimension of q-LCCs by a polynomial factor.Inspired by this and as a notion of intrinsic interest, we define the notion of visible capacity of a stencil as the limiting visible rank of high tensor powers, analogous to Shannon capacity, and pose the question whether there can be large gaps between visible capacity and algebraic rank.