Who Funds Infrastructure for Journalism and Civic Tech?

The Sunlight Foundation announced earlier this week that they’re planning to wind down their “tool building and database maintenance activities, and encourage others to continue [their] most promising projects.” Or, as director Kat Duffy puts it in her statement about the news: “Essentially, Sunlight Labs is shutting down.”

This includes such widely used tools as OpenStates, which former staffers say they have plans to maintain, and many other key pieces of civic tech infrastructure that Sunlight has developed over the years. There’s a list here to give you a sense of how massive their contribution has been to this space in ten short years. And that doesn’t even include all of the public APIs and the additional work they’ve open sourced.

Sunlight’s decision to wind down the work of Sunlight Labs comes as a shock, but they’ve seen their share of turmoil over the past couple years, undergone a leadership transition and seen funding decline from previous peak levels (in true Sunlight fashion, you can see exactly who funds their work here).

I’ve known a number of great people who worked at Sunlight, used their tools, helped INN’s member organizations use their APIs and I’m personally very very sad to see this work winding down. God knows it’s still sorely needed.

But no program and no organization lasts forever. And this just is just the latest reminder that the work we do every day so often depends on the work of many others who have come before us.

It’s also a sobering reminder that ensuring long term sustainability for this sort of open source work is really, really hard. The Ford Foundation has done some research in this area but there are still more questions than answers.

I’m not going to say it’s easy (it’s never easy), but I will say it’s easier to get a grant to fund a shiny new project. Release an app. Provide an API to help people build stuff with your data. Keep that thing running for a couple years. Training! Webinars! Best practices!

But I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot harder to get the next round of funding to keep the servers running, apply updates, keep pace with changing technology, improve and iterate (more on that in a future post).

Sometimes you have to shut things down because you can’t pay to keep the lights on or because the lack of further investment in even the most promising projects causes you to fall behind and a competitor comes along and eats your lunch.

The nonprofit world is not so different in this way from the for-profit world. Only the strong survive, sometimes.

That said, when you’re doing mission-driven work and have a couple years of funding to do or build a particular thing, it’s easy to overlook or delay the necessary planning to ensure the thing you’re building is set up to survive for the long-term. And even if you do that planning, one, two or even three years may not be enough to build a viable thing AND figure out how to pay for its life after your grant runs out (more on that, also, in a future post).

As well-meaning as former staffers, volunteers and open source contributors might be, maintaining a popular open source project is hard. And it’s that much harder if you’re running a hosted service with servers to pay for, an API (or 12) and users/customers who have questions and need ongoing support. Further, if you’re lucky enough to have a project that does get really popular and has lots of people using and relying on it, your cost for infrastructure and support can dramatically increase. Where does that extra money come from?

At INN, we’re experimenting with a combination of foundation funding, individual contributions, paid hosting, support and consulting around our open source work to try to make sure the work survives and thrives. We’re also working (with the help of some of our funders) to develop detailed business plans around some of our work. But I would be lying if I said we had it figured out. Not even close.

This lack of certainty that our work will survive and the knowledge that people rely on us for key pieces of their infrastructure and support is something that I worry about every day.

I hope Sunlight is indeed able to find a new home for their projects and form partnerships to continue their work, but I also hope that we can figure out a way to think beyond two year, grant funded projects and figure out a real plan for sustaining promising projects so that we don’t see critical infrastructure for journalism and civic tech wither and disappear.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s working in this space, challenges you’ve faced, obstacles you’ve overcome and how we might build better solutions together.

Drop me a line or leave a comment below, and of course, if you want to donate and support our work you can do that right over here (no pressure, but every little bit really does help).