As we set out to formulate our research hypothesis, one central question remained contested: What does open digital infrastructure actually mean? Interpretations vary from information technology standards or their implementations to tools and services that enable developers to do their work. For us, neither on their own seemed promising: Mere standards as laid down by standardization organizations such as IETF & Co. do not always get accepted in the Wild Wild West that is open-source software development, where quasi-standards may rule over the official ones. To single out tools and services for developers among all the applications out there seemed arbitrary as well; why would we assume that special rules apply to them that do not apply to others?
For us, digital infrastructure is the result of a process that takes place in different fields and is shaped by many different people in varying capacities. We identified three core spheres for these:
- People and organizations that write and decide upon standards,
- People who implement these standards in their software and create actual digital tools and services around them,
- People who run these tools and services and therefore witness most directly how standards impact users.
If we want to assess how good digital infrastructure is being developed and how funders can best support it, we need to address these three groups and scenarios equally. Because people are key both in our model and in open source in general, we chose a methodological framework that follows the paradigm of human-centered research (shout-out to our friends at SimplySecure, especially Eileen and Molly, who worked with us to figure out how to piece our vague notions and ideas together). Part of our work will center around how distinct these three spheres actually are, and what feedback mechanisms are in place between them to facilitate learning and improvement. Additionally, we will try and figure out how maintenance of open digital infrastructure fits into the bigger picture.