The Impact of Civic Tech on Open Source

How much does Civic Tech extract from and contribute back to commons of open source software? We found out at TICTec.

This summer Andrew and I will be speaking at or attending events where we think our experience or our data can help create a stronger open source ecosystem. Our aim is to share some of our experiences and to dive into data from Libraries.io to explore some of the issues around practices, usage and sustainability of open source software. If you think there’s an event we should be at comment right here on this ticket.

Last month I travelled to Florence to speak at the Civic Tech community’s Glastonbury: TICTec.

For our talk we wanted to answer two simple questions:

  1. How much value does civic tech extract from the open source ecosystem?
  2. How much value does the community put back?

The questions arise from one of the principal reference points for our work: Nadia Eghbal’s Roads and Bridges. In it Nadia talks about our shared, digital infrastructure — the equivalent of roads and bridges that we use as a common, public good every day without a thought. Only open source projects don’t have a tax, a toll or anything beside the work of contributors to sustain them. One of our goals is to explore and raise awareness of this issue by highlighting how much communities support this delicate ecosystem and where they might wish to focus their attention.

We started by defining ‘Digital Infrastructure’ — the software that underpins the most significant part of open source software — using the measure that we think is most accurate: dependencies.

More akin to impact than a like or a download, a dependency upon one project by another indicates value passing upward. By mapping the deep — or to be mathematical transitive — dependencies all the way down the tree we can create an incomplete but internally-accurate picture of the value provided by any one project to the whole ecosystem.

We compiled a list of the top one thousand most depended upon projects amongst the 93m declared dependencies tracked by Libraries.io:

Projects tracked by Libraries.io by number of dependent repositories (complete image)

Yes, this list is far from perfect. It doesn’t include any Operating System-level package managers, and it excludes some package managers that we don’t have dependency information for. But this picture will evolve, and you can make that happen by contributing to the project.

Back to the task at hand. We need to define Civic Tech. We asked mySociety’s research department to provide a list of the most impactful civic tech projects they were aware of. We then gathered every project by any organisation who maintains an impactful project and collectively labelled those 5,034 projects Civic Tech. Finally we declared the 6,815 users who had committed to any one of those projects The Civic Tech Community.

So how much value does this community extract? A meaningful definition of ‘value’ in the context of our questions is impossible. We need a proxy, something indicative of the volume of work we’re measuring. A single commit, the atomic unit of contribution gives us a nice, objective and reasonably sound measure of this.

We found that amongst the 5,034 projects we call Civic Tech, 6,815 users have contributed 1,135,846 commits. This compares with 82,514 people who have contributed 2,731,564 commits to any open source dependency of a Civic Tech project.

And what about the other direction? How much does the Civic tech movement give back? Of the 6,815 members of the Civic Tech Community we found 3,037 had contributed 418,985 commits to a dependency of a Civic Tech project. This was hugely surprising to us. So much so we double and triple checked our working. But sure enough, according to our data:

The Civic Tech Community contributes around ~15% of the work needed to support its own foundations.

Given this, what about the wider picture? How much does the civic tech community contribute to the projects that matter most outside of its own coral? Of the 3,037 people who contributed to a dependency we found 1,201 had contributed 161,512 commits to our Digital Infrastructure projects. Again this is pretty huge. Given what we know we can say:

The Civic Tech Community contributes ~6% of work needed to support our shared, digital infrastructure.

Contribution to Digital Infrastructure by the Civic Tech Community (complete image)

Being born of the free and open source movement I suspect that the Civic Tech community is one of the most egalitarian we’ll uncover this year. The fact that most Civic Tech projects are published under permissive licences underlines the commitment many still have to the tenets of free and open source software. Individuals and organisations understand the strain of being a maintainer and the value many of these projects contribute to the commons. But I do wonder what the degree of value exchange is like in large enterprises? Or in smaller, startup-like organisations, organisations that are narrowly focussed on their own and their investors goals?

What can we do to ensure everyone benefiting contributes, and how best could they contribute?

If these issues concern you. If you wonder how we can better support our shared, digital infrastructure and the individual maintainers of these projects. If you want to support the work of those thinking deeply about these issues, consider attending or sponsoring SustainOSS.org.

Let’s keep this conversation moving.