August 6th: Equity & Sustainability in Open Source (video)
August 20th: Labor Roles and Incentives (video coming soon)
Everything in our modern society, from hospitals and banks to universities and social media platforms, runs on software. Nearly all of this software is built on “digital infrastructure,” a foundation of free and public code that is designed to solve common challenges. The benefits of digital infrastructure are numerous: it can reduce the cost of setting up new businesses, support data-driven discovery across research disciplines, enable complex technologies such as smartphones to talk to each other, and allow everyone to have access to important innovations like encryption that would otherwise be too expensive. Sharing code to address common challenges is in principle cheaper, easier and more efficient.
While the collective action problems that characterize infrastructure funding are well-explored, the industrial organization of digital infrastructure is less well-understood. In 2016, the Ford Foundation funded a report by Nadia Eghbal titled “Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure” that described how that the development and maintenance of digital infrastructure often falls to communities of volunteers who take it upon themselves to maintain this infrastructure in their own free time and for little or no money. Unsurprisingly, this leads to significant risks to the open internet and the ability to develop new, innovative research and businesses within it.
In order to better understand the incentives and constraints that influence the maintenance of digital infrastructure, in 2018 the Sloan and Ford Foundations funded a portfolio of 13 research projects. In some cases the findings of these projects open up further questions, while in others they suggest interventions that could strengthen community practices.
To continue to advance this agenda, this RFP invites proposals to further study the maintenance of digital infrastructure. This new RFP is being funded again by Ford Foundation and Sloan Foundation as well as Mozilla and Open Society Foundations. Among the questions that could be addressed by such research are:
What makes digital infrastructure “critical”? How should support for digital infrastructure projects be prioritized, and by whom? How can the value of digital infrastructure be quantified through economic, social, security, or other measures?
How might we assess the reliability of digital infrastructure? What incentives and supports might foster more robust auditing and maintenance?
What is the role that companies and other private institutions should play in maintaining a stable ecosystem of open source technology, and with what kinds of accountability mechanisms? What are the trade-offs between private sector, government, university, civil society, and/or volunteer maintenance of digital infrastructure?
How can communities that maintain digital infrastructure best be sustained? What are the unique challenges of diversity, motivation, and health for such open projects, and what formal and informal policies are needed to improve them?
Are certain skills or expertise missing or weak in the field of digital infrastructure, such as management experience or succession planning? How can the skills of individual maintainers, developers and advocates of open source technology be strengthened?
How are systemic inequalities like racism, sexism, ableism, and/or xenophobia encoded in digital infrastructure, and how might that encoding be dismantled? How might the diverse local and global communities reliant on this infrastructure exercise power and more actively shape its creation and maintenance?
What are the policy and regulatory considerations for the long-term sustainability of digital infrastructure? What kinds of capacity are needed, for example in government, philanthropy, or civil society, to ensure long-term development of digital infrastructure in the public interest?
These questions are intended as prompts and ideas - concept notes do not need to answer these questions specifically and respondents are welcome to pose their own questions.
In addition, for this second phase we invite proposals that would move findings from the first funded research cohort into practice. Such initiatives should clearly note the specific research finding that is guiding any proposed intervention, and articulate how impact will be measured.
We seek to support proposals addressing a range of issues and a range of different scopes. As part of your concept we will ask you to provide a rough sense of the size of your project according to three cost tiers. Please note that the cost tier does not indicate a length of time: proposals may cover any time range, regardless of cost. We expect most projects will fall into a 6 to 24 month time range, but this is not a hard requirement.
Small: Under $50k
Medium: $50k - $125k
Large: over $125k-$200k
FAQ Who is eligible?
Individuals, Organizations (nonprofit and for-profit), and Academic Institutions are eligible. Are non-US organizations able to apply?
Yes! Organizations based outside of the United States are encouraged to apply.
If accepted, when would my grant start?
The grant start date would be sometime between October 1st and December 31st, 2020.
If accepted, who will be managing my grant?
We will be working through the Open Collective Foundation, who will manage all grants provided through this program. How much funding is available?
The total amount is subject to change and not public at this time, but at this time we anticipate it to be somewhat similar to the amount funded through the 2018 RFP which was $1.3M USD.
This is the original version of the RFP, posted on July 20th, 2020.
July 22nd, 2020: Added a question to the FAQ section. July 29th, 2020: Added link to register for upcoming info sessions. August 14th, 2020: Added link to the 8/20 event and to the Ford digital infrastructure site. August 20th, 2020: Added links to event videos