Our World Depends on Unseen Labor: Open Source Software

Our digital infrastructure is all open source. It’s built and maintained by a relatively small community of open source software developers. Right now the open source software work is funded by a variety of methods: volunteer time, nonprofit corporations and donations of time and money by a few corporations. Is that sustainable? Or should we be looking for ways to fund our digital infrastructure much like we do our roads and bridges through government or community efforts? This is the question that Nadia Eghbal poses in her very comprehensive paper covering her research funded by the Ford Foundation.

About a year ago, at the recommendation of a friend, I met with Nadia Eghbal. Diane Tate introduced her as someone “who recently left her role in venture capital to explore ways to support developers working on early infrastructure projects.” We had a fascinating conversation. Nadia was trying to expand the venture capital world and when she went looking for projects that venture capital doesn’t fund but that really need funding, she found the world of open source. In particular, she found that the infrastructure behind most of our current technology is based on open source software maintained by a small community of developers. Some of them work for nonprofits that pay their salary (like the Linux Foundation now sponsors OpenSSL), others have corporate patrons who pay the salary of maintainers who work on projects they use (like HPE and Google) and others are completely volunteer based.

Nadia believes that our policy makers, grantmakers and activists are unaware of the role that open source software plays and, when they have heard of it, they erroneously believe that it’s well funded. As an example, the IRS is no longer granting 501©(3) status to organizations that primarily produce open source software with the argument that software is not a public good and they can’t guarantee that people won’t profit from it.

Nadia’s report, funded by the Ford Foundation, is a great read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about open source software, how it works and how it’s funded. Warning: it is very long! Think about it more as a short book than a blog post!

Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure


Originally published at stormyscorner.com.