W3C doesn’t help its invited experts. It should.

Software foundations have increasingly started helping non-corporate backed contributors with travel expenses. W3C has been lagging way behind. Until last year, “invited experts”—W3C jargon for individual contributors—even had to pay to attend the technical conference in which they come work for free. It’s time for change.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

The context: across its different working groups, W3C has over 150 invited experts that contribute to spec work in various capacities, sometimes doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Unless these invited experts have a private arrangement with a client, which is rather rare (and needs to be disclosed to the working group), they work for free.

But not only are these experts working for free, they’re also paying for they travel expenses to attend face to face meetings in different parts of the world, and, up until last year even had to purchase their own ticket to join TPAC, W3C’s annual technical conference.

For a gut wrenching take on the hardship of this system, Amelia Bellamy-Royds’ Me and SVG piece is well worth a read.

I don’t have data to back this up, but I wouldn’t be very surprised if underrepresented minorities weren’t also overrepresented within unpaid invited experts.

The money: W3C’s budget isn’t public information. I wish for more transparency here, but that’s not the topic of this post. I’ve been a W3C Advisory Committee Representative myself (see my full disclosure statement at the bottom of this post), so I know what this data was a few years ago, but obviously cannot disclose it publicly. That said, it’s not hard to do the math with the public information available and estimate W3C’s revenue. Just look at the size and nature of its membership (> 450 members) and its fee structure and you can make a pretty good estimate in a couple of hours.

Despite this budget, W3C barely ever spends a dime on invited experts.

W3C reluctantly stopped asking invited experts to pay for their ticket to TPAC last year, and increased everyone else’s ticket by 5% to cover the loss in revenue, although you could opt-out of that 5% increase. I paid the full ticket price but opted out. I explain why in my disclosure statement below.

What others are doing: the Node.js Foundation, for example, has a $60K per year travel fund for contributor expenses despite relatively modest membership revenue, which I estimated at a maximum of ~$1.5M per year from their membership size (<20 members) and fees.

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) has a much more important budget than the Node.js Foundation (and probably than W3C’s too). It has slightly fewer members than W3C (>375), but it’s membership fees are much larger for platinum and gold sponsors.

According to its annual report, the CNCF spent $300K on diversity scholarships for its annual conference in 2018 (most of which it took directly from its budget) and has offered around 500 such scholarships to date.

Overall other software foundations are much more generous with non-corporate backed contributors than W3C is with its invited experts.

Your move, W3C: given how W3C’s membership size and fee structure compares to these two foundations, I see no reason why it couldn’t setup a mid to high 5-figure invited experts fund to cover for travel expenses. That alone would solve tons of problems for invited experts. And it just represents the annual fee of one extra large member (or two to three members with annual revenue of $50M and above).

Alternatively, increasing the membership fee by only $200 a year would create a $90K fund overnight! Of course, you’d want that as percentage increase instead. But I can’t tell you what that percentage would be without divulging W3C’s budget. Let’s just say that I doubt any member would notice the difference.

The reason W3C hasn’t invested in its invited experts more so far isn’t because it doesn’t have the money, it’s because it prioritizes other things. That’s a choice, not a fatality.


Full disclosure: I was a W3C Advisory Committee Representative for a number of years. I have been a W3C fellow. I have been an invited expert in a number of W3C working groups editing specifications on clients’ behalf (so I was paid, this is not common). I am still listed as an invited expert for the WebApps WG, but have stopped editing the WebIDL spec for over a year. I joined TPAC this year and paid the full onsite price for my TPAC ticket out of pocket. I opted-out of the 5% surcharge to cover for invited expert tickets because I believe funding invited experts should be at the core of W3C’s mission, not charity members can opt out of.

Tobie Langel

Written by

Open Source & Web Standards Consultant.

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