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Mapping the co-production of digital infrastructure by peer projects and firms

Summary

This research project, which focuses on the sustainability of digital infrastructure, is part of a joint Ford and Sloan foundations research initiative. It aims to understand the social costs and benefits of the co-production of digital infrastructure by volunteer or ‘peer’ projects and commercial firms. We focus on organisational factors, such as developers being paid by firms to develop Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS).

Funding

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Digital Infrastructure Grant G-2018-11361

Digital Infrastructure team

Assoc Prof Mathieu O’Neil, University of Canberra
https://researchprofiles.canberra.edu.au/en/persons/mathieu-oneil

Assoc Prof Laure Muselli, Telecom Paris
http://ses.telecom-paristech.fr/membres/laure-muselli/

Dr Mahin Raissi, University of Canberra
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mahin_Raissi

Assoc Prof Stefano Zacchiroli, University Paris Diderot / INRIA
https://upsilon.cc/~zack/

Other team members

Xiaolan Cai, Research Associate, University of Canberra

Links and outputs

de Blanc, M., O’Neil, M., Raissi, M. & Zacchiroli, S. (2017) Preliminary Report on the influence of capital in an ethical project: Quantitative data from the 2016 Debian Survey, Journal of Peer Production No. 10.
http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-10-peer-production-and-work/preliminary-report-debian-survey/

Brennan, M (2018) A call for research on digital infrastructure, Ford Foundation, 30 May.
https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/a-call-for-research-on-digital-infrastructure/

Brennan, M (2019) Announcing $1.3M in funding for digital infrastructure research, Ford Foundation, 14 January.
https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/announcing-13m-in-funding-for-digital-infrastructure-research/

O’Neil, M. (2019) N&MRC researcher attends Ford Foundation 'Unconference' in New York City, N&MRC, 2 March.
https://www.canberra.edu.au/research/faculty-research-centres/nmrc/n-and-mrc-researcher-attends-ford-foundation-uncoference-in-new-york-city

O’Neil, M., Cai, X., Muselli, L., Raissi, M. & Zacchiroli, S (2019) Mapping the global network of relationships between firms and F/OSS projects. Australia and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) annual conference 2019, Canberra, 3-5 July.

Description

This research project, which focuses on the sustainability of digital infrastructure, is part of a joint Ford and Sloan foundations digital research initiative. It aims to understand the social costs and benefits of the co-production of digital infrastructure by volunteer or ‘peer’ projects and commercial firms. We focus on organisational factors, such as developers being paid by firms to develop F/OSS.

Our primary RQ is: To what extent are F/OSS projects supported by waged labour, and how does this affect project cohesion and sustainability?  Our secondary RQs are: Aside from constitutional rules (e.g., limiting employee numbers in boards) what new practices, rules, and institutional logics emerge in peer projects? How do projects manage commercial objectives, how do firms manage communal principles, and what does this mean for employee loyalty?

In terms of public benefits, the bridging of the gap between volunteer and commercial work is not yet widely understood. Convincingly outlining the positive societal externalities of this integration in a short report, widely circulated via news and social media, in order to reach an audience beyond the research and industry fields, would be significant. Firms would benefit from guidelines for successful interaction. Projects would benefit from clarifying who can afford to participate. The logic of ‘coding for code’s sake’ in F/OSS presupposes that programmers are earning wages somewhere else: this is not always so.

This logic also favours high-profile work over less glamorous activities such as maintaining older versions. Helping to broaden the range of contributors would make peer projects more inclusive and viable and represent a major achievement.

From an operational perspective, excessive firm involvement or lack of firm diversity present dangers for project cohesion: our research will help firms navigate the relationship with projects for maximum mutual benefit. From a scientific perspective, the team’s deep involvement with the F/OSS community facilitates access to data sources, and its familiarity with cutting-edge computational social science enables methodological innovation for the analysis of the socio-economics of digital infrastructure production.

Finally, in societal terms, as automation gathers pace and job scarcity grows, the not-for-profit and commercial sectors are destined to invent together new forms of collaboration. The long-term viability of innovation-rich peer projects, managed by international teams of volunteers, is a key concern.