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Everything in our modern society, from hospitals to banks to social media platforms, runs on software. Nearly all of this software is built on “digital infrastructure,” a foundation of free and public code that is designed to solve common challenges. The benefits of digital infrastructure are numerous: it can reduce the cost of setting up new businesses, support data-driven discovery across research disciplines, enable complex technologies such as smartphones to talk to each other, and allow everyone to have access to important innovations like encryption that would otherwise be too expensive. Sharing code to address common challenges is in principle cheaper, easier and more efficient. It should also be noted that our digital infrastructure is a distinct part of, and inextricably tied to, a larger ecosystem of open source software development.
While the collective action problems that characterize infrastructure funding are well-explored, the economics of digital infrastructure are less well-understood. In 2016, the Ford Foundation funded a report by Nadia Eghbal titled “Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure” that described how the development and maintenance of digital infrastructure often falls to communities of volunteers who take it upon themselves to maintain this infrastructure in their own free time and for little or no money. Unsurprisingly, this leads to significant risks to the open internet and the ability to develop new, innovative research and businesses within it.
The Sloan and Ford Foundations would like to fund a set of research projects to further study these dynamics, with an eye toward better understanding the economics, maintenance and sustainability of digital infrastructure. Among the questions that could be addressed by such research are:
What makes an open source project “critical digital infrastructure”? How should we measure and prioritize support for digital infrastructure projects? How do organizations know what digital infrastructure they rely on and how do they assess the sustainability risks in these projects?
What is the role that private companies should play in maintaining a stable ecosystem of open source technology? What are the tradeoffs involved between private sector, government, and/or volunteer maintenance of digital infrastructure? What parallels are there to the maintenance and support of other public goods, and what can we learn from those parallels?
How could we better sustain the open source community? What is the relationship between money and sustainability for digital infrastructure projects? In which situations does money help or hurt?
What defines a maintainer of a digital infrastructure project? What incentives do they have to maintain a project and how are more contributions incentivized? Are certain skills or expertise expertise missing or weak in the open source community, such as management experience, and how might they be strengthened?
What are barriers to diversity and inclusion in the public interest infrastructure space? What are the barriers to entry to this community and how might we break them down? And how does open source software contribute to or counter efforts to build a more equitable society?
What are the critical security weak points in our digital infrastructure? How do we mitigate those weak points?
These questions are intended as prompts and ideas - concept notes do not need to answer these questions specifically and respondents are welcome to pose their own questions. We also open to broader interpretations of "digital infrastructure,” though we are primarily focused on the scope defined above and in the report by Nadia Eghbal. We are happy to field questions about whether work is in scope prior to submitting a concept note.
We seek to support proposals addressing a range of issues and a range of different scopes. As part of your concept we will ask you to provide a rough sense of the size of your project according to three cost tiers. Please note that the cost tier does not indicate a length of time: proposals may cover any time range, regardless of cost. We expect most projects will fall into a 6 to 24 month time range, but this is not a hard requirement.
Small: Under $50k
Medium: $50k - $125k
Large: over $125k
Full Proposals & Decisions
Concept notes will be accepted until 11:59pm on June 13th, though we encourage early submissions. A panel of advisors will review submissions and provide their input to Ford Foundation and Sloan Foundation. Full proposals will be invited by July 13th. Final determinations on proposal invitations will be made by Ford Foundation and Sloan Foundation. Final proposals will be due by September 14th and final funding decisions will be made by October 1st.
Who is eligible?
Individuals, Organizations (nonprofit and for-profit) and Academic Institutions are eligible.
If accepted, when would my grant start?
The grant start date would be sometime between October 1st and December 31st, 2018.
If accepted, will my grant come from Sloan or Ford?
It depends - it may come from either, or both. We will work with finalists to determine the best mechanism for each research grant.
Are there restrictions on publication of research?
We expect all output to be made available to the public under an acceptable creative commons license (or similar). If this presents any challenges, we can discuss details if your project is invited to submit a full proposal.
When you say digital infrastructure, do you also mean [insert term here]?
We encourage a broad definition of digital infrastructure and recognize that this work goes by many terms: open source, open standards, critical infrastructure, and so on.