Over the past year, we have explored why open-source digital infrastructure is an urgent social justice issue, and shared a call for research proposals on that very topic. Today, we’re excited to announce thirteen new research grants being made by the Ford Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, focused on the sustainability, maintainability, and security of open-source digital infrastructure.

The missions of the Ford and Sloan foundations are complementary but distinct: Ford’s mission is to challenge inequality in all its forms, and Sloan works to support scientific research that drives health and prosperity. Together, we believe that preserving sustainable, open digital infrastructure is a critical public interest issue—and an effort we hope other foundations will join.

Why is this important to the fight against inequality?

We believe that the internet is a new public good that all of society relies on, and that we cannot create a just and equitable society without this vital platform being just and equitable, too. Ford has acted on this conviction by making a range of policy-related grants on issues including net neutrality and privacy. And while the debates over those policies—and our support—continue, we have come to recognize that issues of the technical infrastructure behind the internet are just as important.

Over the past two years, Ford has partnered with other foundations (including Sloan and the Open Technology Fund), to explore what our role could and should be in the field of open-source code—that’s the public code that we all rely upon every day. This code represents the roads and bridges of our digital infrastructure, and is both more pervasive and perhaps more fragile than ever. If this infrastructure fails, the consequences will be the same as when physical infrastructure falls apart: people with privilege and resources will find other ways to navigate the world, while those on the margins will bear the brunt through higher costs, decreased access, and a related lack of opportunity.

We learned that when it came to the public interest needs of digital infrastructure, there were a number of critical unanswered questions that were getting very little attention. So we decided to focus on supporting those who are seeking answers.

The grantees and their questions

During the six-week call for proposals last June, we received over 240 applications. With the support of an advisory panel, we narrowed that down to thirteen organizations who will receive a total of $1.3M. Some of the grants are managed by the Ford Foundation, and others by the Sloan Foundation. In early February, we will gather all the research grantees together at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice to meet each other, build relationships, and foster collaboration on their many common themes and shared goals.

Each of the thirteen projects will focus on a specific research question, as seen below. More detailed descriptions of each grant can be found on this overview document.

  • Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Society: What makes an open-source project “critical digital infrastructure”?*
  • University of Canberra & Telecom Paris Tech: To what extent are digital infrastructure projects supported by waged labor, and how does this affect project cohesion and sustainability?^
  • Caroline Sinders, independent researcher: What can the history of Javascript teach us about techniques to mitigate harassment (a barrier to diversity and a threat to the sustainability of digital infrastructure projects) in open-source communities?*
  • Implicit Development Environments Research Group: 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?*
  • Arizona State University, UC Santa Barbara, & University of Wisconsin Madison: What is the relationship between money and sustainability for community-driven, open-source software instruments that enable transformative research?^
  • Martin Michlmayr, independent researcher: How do FOSS Foundations (trade associations or nonprofits that provide services such as asset management to open-source infrastructure projects) contribute to the operations, sustainability, and success of critical digital infrastructure projects?*
  • Carnegie Mellon University: How might structural factors in the social networks of open-source communities pose barriers to underrepresented newcomers, especially women, becoming full community members?*
  • CMU Tepper School of Business, UCLA Anderson School of Business: How do non-financial and career incentives impact the motivation and productivity of contributors to open-source and proprietary digital infrastructure projects?^
  • UC Berkeley Institute for Data Science, UC San Diego, & UCONN: 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?^
  • University of Washington: How can we measure, model, and reduce underproduction in open-source software infrastructure projects?*
  • Rochester Institute of Technology: 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?*
  • Institute for International Law & Justice & Guaraini Institute for Global Legal Studies, NYU School of Law: How can legal devices and institutions be adapted and applied, both locally and transnationally, to overcome the under-maintenance of critical digital infrastructure?^
  • Anushah Hossain, UC Berkeley: What factors encourage and sustain international communities of contributors to open-source projects?*

We look forward to sharing the output of this work in the months to come—and to arriving at answers to these important questions, which will help shore up the infrastructure all of us rely on every day.

* Grant managed by the Ford Foundation.
^ Grant managed by the Sloan Foundation.