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Democracy

This entry is currently being updated and may contain some inconsistencies (June 2019).

A democracy is a political system with institutions that allows citizens to express their political preferences, has constraints on the power of the executive, and provides a guarantee of civil liberties. In an autocracy, political preferences cannot be expressed and citizens are not guaranteed civil liberties. Anocracies (a term we'll often use in this entry) are regimes that fall in between — they are neither fully autocratic nor democratic.

This entry presents the empirical research on the slow rise of democracy over the last two centuries.

Empirical View

Number of Democracies

The majority of the world's countries are now democracies. The chart below depicts the slow rise of the number of democracies over the last two centuries.

The end of World War I led to the birth of many democracies. However, during the 1930s, many of these young democracies then reverted to being autocratic.

After World War II, the number of democracies began growing again. But it was the fall of the Iron Curtain circa 1989 that led to a more dramatic increase in the number of democracies.

Numbers of autocracies and democracies

 

Shown is the number of a given political regime in the world over time. Democracies are defined as the combination of
both liberal and elected democracies; autocracies are the sum of closed and elected autocracies.

1900192019401960198020002018020406080100120DemocraciesAutocracies

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Source: Varieties of Democracy Project (2019, version 9)

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2018

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Share of World Population Living in Democracies

The chart below distinguishes between six different political regimes and shows the number of people in the world governed under each. To instead see the shares of the world population governed under each regime, click on 'Relative'.

During the 19th century, most of the world's population lived in colonial empires, autocracies, or anocracies. The late 19th century saw a limited expansion of democracies. And since that time, there has been a general upward trend in the share of the world population living under democracies, save for the period before and during World War II.

During the second half of the 20th century, colonies gained independence and more countries became democracies. Today, more than half the world's population live in a democracy. And of those who still live in autocracies, four-fifths are Chinese.

Number of world citizens living under different political regimes

 

The scale goes from -10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy). Anocracies are those scoring between -5 and 5. "Colony"
(coded as -20) includes not only colonies, but also countries that were not yet sovereign states (e.g. the Czech Republic
and Slovakia in 1945–92).

18161850190019502000201501 billion2 billion3 billion4 billion5 billion6 billion7 billionCountry inTransition or NoDataPopulation inColonyPopulation inAutocracyPopulation inClosed AnocracyPopulation in OpenAnocracyPopulation inDemocracy

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Source: World Population by Political Regime they live in (OWID (2016))

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World maps of political regimes over 200 years

The world has changed. Two centuries ago, most countries were autocracies or colonies; today, most are democracies. In the map and chart below, each country receives a Polity IV score, which goes from −10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy). For convenience, in this entry, we'll refer to this as the "Democracy Score". By default, 2015 data are shown, but you can move the slider (bottom) to see data in each of the past 200 years.

Most countries in Europe and the Americas are now democracies. Some parts of Africa — especially in the West and the South — have democratized. So too have countries in Asia, with India being the world's largest democracy. Many countries are full democracies (score of 10), including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Mongolia.

Political Regime, 2015

 

The scale goes from -10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy). Anocracies are those scoring between -5 and 5.
"Colony" (coded as -20) includes not only colonies, but also countries that were not yet sovereign states (e.g. the Czech
Republic and Slovakia in 1945–92).

0No dataColonyAutocracy (-10 to -6)Closed Anocracy (-5 to 0)Open Anocracy (1 to 5)Democracy (6 to 10)/>}

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Source: Political Regime (OWID based on Polity IV and Wimmer & Min)

Note: See the linked democracy entry for some discussion of the complexity in defining democracy and the limitations of this data.

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Political freedom is a very recent achievement

The map below shows the age of each democracy at the end of 2015. (In black are countries that were not democracies in 2015.)

We see that a democratic world is a very recent achievement. Also, economic success tends to go with political freedom. The countries that democratized first were also mostly the countries that first achieved sustained economic growth. One might thus hope that the relatively high growth rates enjoyed by today's poorer countries will lead to further political freedom.1

Age of democracies at the end of 2015

 

Shown is the age of each democracy in years at the end of 2015. A country is defined as democratic if it meets
specific conditions for contestation/election and political participation (see Sources tab for more information on
these criteria).

01 Year20 years40 years60 years80 years100 years120 years140 years160 years>180 years,No data,Not a democracy in 2015/>}

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Source: Boix, Miller, and Rosato (2013, 2018)

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Correlates, Determinants & Consequences

Correlates of democratic rule

Shortly, we will analyze the causes and effects of democratization. But first, we examine how democracies differ from non-democracies.

Democratic countries are richer – the exception are fossil-fuel exporters

The chart below plots GDP per capita against the Democracy Score. Observe that autocracies (score between −10 and −6) that do not export large quantities of fossil fuels tend to be poor. No such country enjoys GDP per capita of more than 15,000 international-$.

Income vs type of political regime, 2014

 

Political regime are classified on a range from -10 (full autocracy) to +10 (full democracy). Incomes are adjusted for price
differences between countries to allow comparisons.

Political Regime (OurWorldInData based on Polity IV and Wimmer & Min)-10-50510GDP per capita$20,000$40,000$60,000$80,000$100,000$120,000$140,000linearChinaIndiaUnited StatesPakistanNigeriaBangladeshRussiaJapanVietnamEgyptGermanyTurkeyTanzaniaSouth KoreaArgentinaAlgeriaIraqVenezuelaSaudi ArabiaUzbekistanMozambiqueCameroonAngolaChadGreeceUnited Arab EmiratesSingaporeNorwayOmanQatarBahrainComorosEquatorial GuineaLuxembourg,,Africa,,Asia,,Europe,,North America,,Oceania,,South America

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Source: GDP per capita, Political Regime (OWID based on Polity IV and Wimmer & Min)

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2014

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Democratic countries are healthier

The chart below plots each country's child mortality against its Democracy Score, for the year 2015.

We see that few autocratic countries enjoy child mortality rates under 10 per 1,000. In contrast, democracies scoring 7 or more often enjoy child mortality rates below 10 or even 5 per 1,000.

Here we have considered only child mortality, but a broader analysis of countries' health outcomes would also show that more generally, good health is linked with political freedom.

(Note though that the chart below does not take into account the age of each democratic regime. If there is indeed a link between good health and political freedom, we might expect that older democracies enjoy better health. This would entail a deeper analysis that we have not done here.)

Child mortality vs type of political regime, 2015

 

Political regime are classified on a range from -10 (full autocracy) to +10 (full democracy). Child mortality is the share of
newborns who die before reaching the age of five.

Political Regime (OurWorldInData based on Polity IV and Wimmer & Min)-10-50510Child mortality0%2%4%6%8%10%12%linearChinaIndiaUnited StatesIndonesiaBrazilPakistanNigeriaBangladeshRussiaJapanVietnamEgyptTurkeyDemocratic Republic of CongoThailandSouth AfricaTanzaniaMyanmarSouth KoreaAlgeriaUgandaIraqAfghanistanVenezuelaPeruSaudi ArabiaUzbekistanGhanaNorth KoreaMadagascarSri LankaCameroonAngolaBurkina FasoNigerMaliKazakhstanMalawiEcuadorCambodiaChadRwandaCubaGuineaSomaliaBeninBurundiTajikistanParaguayJordanLibyaLaosTogoSierra LeoneEritreaSingaporeTurkmenistanCentral African RepublicMauritaniaLesothoGambiaGabonSwazilandDjiboutiComorosEquatorial Guinea,,Africa,,Asia,,Europe,,North America,,Oceania,,South America

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Source: UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation; Polity IV

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Causes of democratization

Social science is often difficult because we need to separate (a) cause from effect; and (b) correlation from causation. For example, we have just seen that good health is correlated with democratization. But is it good health that leads to democratization? Or is it democratization that leads to good health? Or perhaps it is neither — the correlation is simply spurious? Most often though, it is a little of all of the above. When presented with a correlation between variables X and Y, social scientists are faced with the task of quantifying the degree to which X causes Y, Y causes X, or neither.

We now briefly examine one possible determinant of democratization: education.

Countries with better education in the past are more likely to be democracies today

A long-standing theory in political science argues that education is a key determinant of the emergence and sustainability of democracy, because it promotes political participation at the individual level and fosters a collective sense of civic duty.

And so, under this theory, we should expect that education correlates positively with measures of democratization in subsequent years. This is precisely what we see in the data and chart below. Those countries that had higher average education levels in 1970 are also those countries that are more likely to be democratic today (you can read more about measures of education level in our entry on Global Rise of Education).

Again, these data should be interpreted carefully. They merely show a correlation and do not imply a causal link. That is, these data do not imply that education leads to democracy.

Nonetheless, academic work does suggest that there is such a causal link. Even after controlling for many other country characteristics, the positive relationship between education and democracy holds (see, for example, Lutz, Crespo-Cuaresma, and Abbasi‐Shavazi 20102).

Correlation between education in the past and democracy today

 

Average years of schooling for total population aged 25+ in 1970, and political regime according to the Polity
IV assessment (ranging from -10 for ‘Fully Autocratic’ to +10 for ‘Fully Democratic’) in 2015

Average total years of schooling for adult population in 1970246810Political regime in 2015-10-50510ChinaIndiaUnited StatesIndonesiaBrazilPakistanBangladeshRussiaJapanPhilippinesVietnamEgyptGermanyIranTurkeyDemocratic Republic of CongoThailandFranceSouth KoreaColombiaSpainArgentinaAlgeriaUgandaIraqVenezuelaPeruSaudi ArabiaGhanaSyriaSri LankaCote d'IvoireMaliKazakhstanMalawiEcuadorSenegalRwandaCubaBelgiumHaitiBeninUnited Arab EmiratesIsraelTajikistanTogoKyrgyzstanSingaporeMauritaniaArmeniaNamibiaGambiaGabonBahrainSwazilandFijiYemen,,Africa,,Asia,,Europe,,North America,,Oceania,,South America

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Source: Political Regime (OWID based on Polity IV and Wimmer & Min), Lee-Lee (2016), Barro-Lee (2018) and UNDP, HDR (2018)

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Effects of democratic rule

Democracies are better at protecting human rights

The right to vote and determine who holds political power is in itself a fundamental right. And this right is, by definition, upheld and protected by all democracies.

But of course, there are many other human rights. Are democracies also better at protecting these other human rights?

As noted in our entry on human rights, it is difficult to measure the degree to which human rights are protected. In our opinion, the best available measure is the Human Rights Protection Score developed by Fariss (2014)3.

The Human Rights Protection Score focuses on the protection of the physical integrity of citizens. In particular, it takes into account torture, government killing, political imprisonment, extrajudicial executions, mass killings and disappearances.

The chart below plots each country's Human Rights Protection Score against its Democracy Score. There is a clear positive correlation. Countries with high Democracy Scores tend also to have high Human Rights Protection Scores. Indeed, except for Singapore and Oman, every country whose Human Rights Protection Score exceeds 0.5 has a Democracy Score is a democracy.

Mulligan, Gil, and Sala-i-Martin (2004)4 investigate the link between democratic rule and the human rights protection in a sample of 121 counties controlling for other important variables. The authors find that countries that are more democratic are less likely to execute, regulate religion, or censor the press.

Human Rights Score vs. Political regime type, 2015

 

Shown is each country's Human Rights Score plotted against its political regime type. The Human Rights Scores range
from around −3.8 to around 5.4 (the higher the better), while the political regime range from −10 (full autocracy) to +10
(full democracy).

Political regime type-10-50510Human rights protection score-3-2-1012345ChinaIndiaUnited StatesIndonesiaBrazilPakistanBangladeshRussiaJapanVietnamEgyptGermanyDemocratic Republic of CongoThailandFranceItalyTanzaniaMyanmarSouth KoreaAlgeriaUgandaAfghanistanMoroccoNepalMalaysiaSaudi ArabiaNorth KoreaTaiwanSri LankaRomaniaCameroonNetherlandsZimbabweChadSouth SudanHaitiBelarusBurundiIsraelJordanLibyaLaosTogoNicaraguaEritreaSingaporeNorwayLiberiaMauritaniaPanamaKuwaitQatarGambiaBahrainSwazilandFijiSolomon IslandsLuxembourg,,Africa,,Asia,,Europe,,North America,,Oceania,,South America

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Source: Political Regime (OWID based on Polity IV and Wimmer & Min), Schnakenberg and Fariss (2014), Fariss (2019)

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Does democratization have an effect on education?

 

Above, we mentioned that improved education might cause greater democratization. Now, is there also a reverse causal effect? That is, does democratization lead to improved education? Once again, this is a tricky question for social science, because we need to distinguish between the two arrows of causation.

Evidence that democratization leads to better education

Gallego (2010)5 presents the most careful analysis that we are aware of. It presents evidence that democracy has indeed had a causal effect on primary-school enrollment.6

Other papers deal with the issue of possible reverse causality in a simpler fashion and use lagged observations of democracy as a possible determinant for the level of education. For example, Baum and Lake (2001) find that democratization increased secondary-school enrollment.7

Also, Acemoglu, Naidu, Restrepo, and Robinson (2015)8 find that democracy is associated with an increase in secondary schooling.

We now briefly discuss several channels through which democratization might improve education:

Electoral competition in democracies increases the incentive to abolish school fees

Harding and Stasavage (2014)9 find that democratization has a positive effect on primary education. Their explanation is that electoral competition in democracies incentivizes politicians to abolish primary-school fees. They argue that democratization has a much smaller effect on the provision of school inputs and consequently the quality of schooling — the reason is that such actions are harder to monitor and would thus provide politicians with a smaller advantage in electoral competition.

Democratization increases educational spending

Stasvage (2005)10 finds that the 1990s shift to multiparty competition in African countries increased total educational spending as a percentage of GDP.

Ansell (2010)11 studies 100 countries over 40 years and finds that democratization increases both total educational spending as a share of GDP and as a share of the government budget.

Evidence that democracy improves teacher–student ratios

Naidu (2011)12 studies the effects of the 19th-century disenfranchisement of black citizens in the US South through poll taxes and literacy tests. He finds that this reversal of democracy "reduced the teacher-child ratio in black schools by 10–23%, with no significant effects on white teacher-child ratios."

Democracy improved local politics in China and lead to more educated politicians

Martinez-Bravo et al. (2012)13 study the gradual introduction of local elections in China. In particular, they exploit the staggered timing of the introduction of village elections as a natural experiment. They "find that elections significantly increase public goods expenditure, the increase corresponds to demand and is paralleled by an increase in public goods provision and local taxes." This is consistent with some of the results we've already discussed, including increased public education in villages with more children. Overall total public goods investment increased by 27 percent – this increase in public expenditures was funded by villagers and was accompanied by an increase in the local taxes paid by villagers.

The introduction of elections also reduced inequality. This was achieved partly through (a) land redistribution from elite-controlled enterprises to farming households; and (b) increased irrigation and hence improved agricultural productivity that is likely to "disproportionately benefit poorer households".

Martinez-Bravo et al. (2012) also find that the introduction of elections was followed by the increased turnover of village chairmen increased. Moreover, the village chairmen were now less likely to be Communist Party members and, more importantly, were better educated.

Data Quality & Definition

Why we chose Polity IV as the main source for democracy measures

Measuring democratization is a tricky business. Can something as complex as democratization really be boiled down to a single, one-dimensional metric? Many would argue that it cannot.

Nonetheless, such a metric can be convenient and useful — it allows us to compare political regimes across time and space, and to quantify the causes and effects of political regime change. For example, such a metric can help us study the link between democratization and the end of mass famines.

In this entry, we have chosen to rely heavily on Polity IV and, in particular, what we've called the Democracy Score as our metric for democratization. One reason for choosing Polity IV is its long-run perspective.

Another is that Polity IV's data sources provide a detailed explanation for each country's political regime classification in each year. You can find these explanations in the PDF files here.

Yet another reason for choosing Polity IV is that it was praised by Munck and Verkuilen (2002),14 which is a a much-cited and thorough evaluation of commonly used democracy measures. These authors argue that there is usually a trade-off between the comprehensiveness of the empirical scope and the quality of the assessment in terms of conceptualization, measurement, and aggregation. However, Polity IV constitutes a rare "partial exception" to this trade-off.

Of course, we must keep in mind that the Polity IV Democracy Score does not and cannot capture everything that matters. For example, it fails to capture corruption or human rights adequately — and in any case, it probably makes better sense for us to measure these separately.

Comparison of different regime measures

The chart below is taken from Wilhelmsen (2006)15

It puts together three other measures of democratization that we haven't yet discussed in this entry. These are the Polyarchy measure, the Polity measure, and the Freedom House measure. The Polyarchy and Polity measures go back to the early 19th century. The Freedom House measure shows the percentage of independent countries that are democratic. You can see that while these measures do not exactly coincide, they do largely move together.

Share of democracies of independent countries, 1816–2002 – Wilhelmsen

Data Sources

An overview of measures is presented at www.democracybarometer.org and at devEconData.

The Manifesto-Project by the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung is an effort to understand political changes in democratic countries. This project undertakes a qualitative analysis of party manifestos for 50 countries since 1945.

Long Run

Polity Index

Data: Many different measures – listed here. Most commonly used is the Polity2 measure which measures political systems on a spectrum between autocracy and democracy. 16

Geographical coverage: Global – by country.

Time span:  Data goes back to 1800 and is yearly updated.

Available at: The website is here. Older versions of the Polity dataset are available at Kristian Gleditsch's Polity Data Archive.

This data set is compiled at Colorado State University. More comments on the Polity measures can be found at DevEconData.

Vanhanen’s Index of Democracy

Data: Competition, Participation, and Index of Democracy

Geographical coverage: Global – 187 countries

Time span: Since 1810

Available at: Online here.

Criticized by Munck and Verkuilen (2002).17

Boix-Miller-Rosato dichotomous coding of democracy, 1800-2007

Data: Dichotomous democracy measure, Dichotomous indicator of sovereignty/independence, Previous number of democratic breakdowns, Consecutive years of current regime type

Geographical coverage: Global.

Time span: 1800-2007

Available at: The data is available at Michael K. Miller's website.

The accompanying paper is published here.18

Relatively new.

Recent Decades

Freedom House

Data: Measures of political and civil liberties

Geographical coverage: Global

Time span: Since 1973

Available at: Online here

 Criticized by Munck and Verkuilen (see last side note)

Democracy-Dictatorship Data

Data: Classification of political regimes as democracy and dictatorship; and classification of democracies as parliamentary, semi-presidential (mixed) and presidential.

Geographical coverage: Global – 202 countries.

Time span: From 1946 or year of independence to 2008.

Available at: Online at José Antonio Cheibub's website.

The accompanying paper is Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland (2010).19

Papaioannou and Siourounis "Democratization and Growth"

Data: Year when permanent democratization happened

Geographical coverage: Global – by country

Time span: 1960-2003

Available at: Data and paper available for download at Papaioannou's website.

Varieties of Democracy

Data: Varieties of Democracy data

Geographical coverage: Global – 206 countries.

Time span: 1900 to present

Available at: Online at www.v-dem.net.

References

We use data from the 'Boix-Miller-Rosato dichotomous coding of democracy, 1800–2007'. In particular, we use Version 3.0 of their data, which is available at Michael K. Miller’s website.

Lutz, W., Crespo Cuaresma, J., & Abbasi‐Shavazi, M. J. (2010). Demography, education, and democracy: Global trends and the case of Iran. Population and Development Review, 36(2), 253-281.

Christopher J. Fariss (2014) – Respect for Human Rights has Improved Over Time: Modeling the Changing Standard of Accountability. In American Political Science Review / Volume 108 / Issue 02 / May 2014, pp 297-318 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0003055414000070 (About DOI), Published online: 08 May 2014

Casey B. Mulligan; Ricard Gil; Xavier Sala-i-Martin (2004) – Do Democracies Have Different Public Policies than Nondemocracies? The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 1. (2004), pp. 51-74

Online without a paywall here.

Gallego, F.A., (2010) – Historical origins of schooling: the role of democracy and political decentralization. The Review of Economics and Statistics 92 (2), 228–243.

Online here.

The author employs an instrumental variable approach using historical settler mortality of Europeans and indigenous population density in 1500 as instruments for democracy.

Baum, M.A., Lake, D.A. (2001) – The invisible hand of democracy: political control and the provision of public services. Comparative Political Studies August 2001 vol. 34 no. 6 587-621

Online here.

Without paywall here.

Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, Pascual Restrepo, James A. Robinson (2015) – Democracy, Redistribution, and Inequality.

Handbook of Income Distribution Volume 2, 2015, Pages 1885–1966 Handbook of Income Distribution Cover image Chapter 21

Online without a paywall here.

A summary of the results is presented by the authors here.

Harding, Robin, Stasavage, David (2014) – What Democracy Does (and Doesn’t do) for Basic Services: School Fees, School Inputs, and African Elections. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 76, No. 1, January 2014, Pp. 229–245

Without paywall online here.

Stasavage, D (2005) – Democracy and education spending in Africa. American Journal of Political Science, 49: 343–358. doi:10.1111/j.0092-5853.2005.00127.x

Online here.

Ansell, B., (2010) – From the Ballot to the Blackboard: The Redistributive Political Economy of Education. The dissertation is freely available online here.

Published by Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Naidu, S., (2011) – Suffrage, Schooling, and Sorting in the Post-Bellum US South. Unpublished. Available freely here.

Martinez-Bravo, Monica and Padró i Miquel, Gerard and Qian, Nancy, The Effects of Democratization on Public Goods and Redistribution: Evidence from China (May 2012). CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP8975. Available at SSRN here.

Munck and Verkuilen (2002) - Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy Evaluating Alternative Indices. In Comparative Political Studies, 35, 1, 5--34.

Lars Wilhelmsen - A Democratic Peace Revisited (Measuring Democracy in International Relations). Master Thesis - Department of Political Science, University of Oslo, April 2006. Online here. The Polyarchy data is available at the PRIO institute.

This measure is criticized by Gleditsch and Ward (1997) – Double Take: A Reexamination of Democracy and Autocracy in Modern Polities, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 41(3): 361-383.

Gerardo L. Munck and Jay Verkuilen (2002) – Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: Evaluating Alternative Indices. Comparative Political Studies 2002 35: 5. Online here.

Carles Boix, Michael Miller and Sebastian Rosato (2012) – A Complete Data Set of Political Regimes, 1800−2007 Comparative Political Studies published online 26 November 2012.

José Antonio Cheibub, Jennifer Gandhi, and James Raymond Vreeland (2010) – Democracy and Dictatorship Revisited. Public Choice, vol. 143, no. 2-1, pp. 67-101.

Citation

Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the underlying data sources.