The software, standards, and protocols that form our digital infrastructure are critical to a free and open internet, and much of it has been built by volunteers. But free, public code—which we refer to as open source software—needs regular upkeep and maintenance, just as physical infrastructure does, and because it doesn’t belong to any one person or party, it is no one person’s job to maintain it. Without maintenance, we see the digital equivalent of a crumbling road or a collapsing bridge. Building toward a more diverse and well-funded ecosystem for critical digital infrastructure, the Ford Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation came together in 2018 to fund thirteen research projects that fill gaps in understanding of how digital infrastructure is built, maintained, and sustained.

In some cases the findings of these projects open up further questions, while in others they suggest interventions that could strengthen community practices.

Read more about the research projects below.

2020 Digital Infrastructure Research RFP

To continue to advance this agenda, Ford Foundation, Sloan Foundation, Mozilla, Omidyar Network and Open Society Foundations launched a 2020 Digital Infrastructure RFP to further study the maintenance of digital infrastructure. Learn about selected research projects here.

What we’ve learned

The first round of research that began in 2019 asked crucial questions and yielded a number of insights that are helping to advance the field. Read more about the research projects here. Also dig into the research and findings in the reports, one-pagers, and videos. Researchers gathered for a number of convenings in the summer of 2020 to discuss their findings and the importance of this work. Recordings of these convenings can be found here and here.

What makes an open source project “critical digital infrastructure?”

Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Society

Researchers: Lucy Bernholz, Jessica Feldman, Argyri Panezi

Research overview
Research one-pager
Research video

What factors encourage and sustain international communities of contributors to open source projects?

What is the relationship between money and sustainability for community-driven, open-source software instruments that enable transformative research in stellar astrophysics?

To what extent are F/OSS projects supported by waged labor, and how does this affect project cohesion and sustainability?

How can funders and community leaders better meet the needs of digital infrastructure projects, and how are those needs distinct from projects at the application layer – particularly with respect to values, governing bodies, and supporting structures?

How do FOSS Foundations (trade associations or non-profits that provide services such as asset management to open source infrastructure projects) contribute to the operations, sustainability, and success of critical digital infrastructure projects?

How might structural factors in the social networks of open source communities pose barriers to underrepresented newcomers, especially women, becoming full community members?

How do non-financial and career incentives impact the motivation and productivity of contributors to open source and proprietary digital infrastructure projects?

In community-based open-source software projects, what is the visible and invisible work of maintaining trusted, functioning software infrastructure — especially as projects grow and transition from volunteer-based to various sustainability models?

How can we measure, model, and reduce underproduction in open source software infrastructure projects? 

How do mismatched conceptualizations between maintainers and users of a FOSS digital infrastructure project interact to affect the community health and thus sustainability of such projects?

How can legal devices and institutions be adapted and applied (both locally and transnationally) to overcome the under-maintenance of critical digital infrastructure?

Contact info:

[email protected]

Note: We are not soliciting grant proposals at this time.