NEW YORK — Today, the Ford Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Omidyar Network, and the Mozilla Open Source Support Program in collaboration with the Open Collective Foundation announced $1.3 million in grants to 13 research projects to advance our understanding of critical digital infrastructure across the globe. The funding will support the most cutting edge research to date on digital infrastructure and open source code—the building blocks of a free and open internet. Researchers will also examine how a lack of diversity and sustainability has reduced innovation and blunted the growth of the digital infrastructure field.
Everything from hospitals to banks to social media platforms runs on open source software, nearly all of which is built on digital infrastructure. The field, run largely by volunteers, remains at risk of collapse from a lack of maintenance, resources, and diversity. These pose significant risks to the open internet and the ability to develop new, innovative research and businesses within it.
“We are honored to support this extraordinary cohort who will not only study why open-source digital infrastructure must be sustained, but also how free and open source code remains a necessary tool to tackle the most urgent social justice issues of our time, from climate change to covid-19 resilience,” said Michael Brennan, Senior Program Officer at the Ford Foundation. “The Ford Foundation is excited that a growing roster of grantmakers are supporting the field of digital infrastructure.”
“Like everything else in modern society, cutting edge research relies on layers of software, much of it produced on shoestring budgets and with little or no outside support,” said Joshua M. Greenberg, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “That represents a critical vulnerability to scientific progress. Understanding the depth and breadth of that vulnerability and how to best address it is a tier-one challenge for technology policy.”
Selected researchers will examine how digital infrastructure is indispensable to modern society, how to best sustain communities that maintain digital infrastructure, what’s necessary to dismantle systemic inequalities within the digital infrastructure field, including racism, sexism, and ableism, why cities succeed and fail in using open source software, and more.
This research builds on the findings from over a dozen projects stemming from a 2018 RFP funded by the Ford and Sloan Foundations, focused on defining the field of open source digital infrastructure, why it remained overlooked, and its implications on social justice issues.
Given the impacts and challenges facing open source communities worldwide, these research projects span the globe, including initiatives in the United States, South Africa, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Researchers will focus on issue areas including:
- How COVID data systems are created and transformed by the open source community;
- How indigenous communities and land defenders in Brazil have been using digital infrastructure in their fight against climate change;
- How do perceptions of unfairness when contributing to an open source project affect their sustainability;
- How public-private cooperation at the national level in India can support the development of software solutions to digitize government services.
“Digital infrastructure enables the basic functions of our society,” said Elizabeth Eagen, Senior Program Officer with the Open Society Foundations’ Information Program. “Because so much of our world depends on software built on free and open code, it is crucial to understand the needs and systems of the people and communities who maintain it. We are excited to support this community of researchers, whose work is critical to human rights and accountability efforts.”
"Omidyar Network is honored to support this cohort of energetic and committed innovators and researchers working on the cutting edge of digital infrastructure and open-source software,” said Govind Shivkumar, Principal, Responsible Technology team, Omidyar Network. “This work is critical to ensuring future technological innovation promotes liberty and well-being while building in safeguards to manage risks and unintended consequences.”
With more understanding and insights of this growing field, the ultimate goal is to ensure the digital infrastructure society relies on is maintained and governed in a way that prioritizes the public interest and increases the diversity, talent, and perspectives within the technical foundations of the internet.
To learn more about the selected projects, find a list of abstracts here. For more on past research funding and findings related to digital infrastructure, visit www.fordfoundation.org/digitalinfrastructure