What it takes to base a research project on Open Digital Infrastructure

We do not only conduct research about Open Digital Infrastructure. Of course that is our main focus, but we set ourselves a side goal: To do credible work, we decided to rely on Open Source applications wherever possible. This is not just an act of signaling to our interview partners, even though it has shown to build trust and credibility within the Open Source scene, in a similar way as Latour describes academic work as a “Cycle of Credibility”. It is also an important methodological part of our human-centered research approach: By basing our research on Open Source, we gain a different perspective on the topic that can inform our project’s outcomes.

And of course we also want to heighten the visibility of infrastructure projects, so here is a list of the tools we decided to deploy and host:

  • For practicality’s sake, our website is a simple WordPress instance. WordPress is often rightly criticised for consuming too much energy, but it still is the easiest way for less technical folks to contribute collaboratively to a website. We considered using a Hugo theme for some time though. With Hugo, you can create static websites that produce much less data traffic and hence consume less energy. To at least make up a little for using WordPress, we chose a hosting service that runs entirely on renewable energy.
  • We run our own email server. In a time when gmail addresses make up a whopping 25% (1.5 billion) of all email addresses in use, it is important to keep in mind that email was supposed to be a decentralized way of communication, and to keep it that way.
  • A Nextcloud instance is our choice for file sharing and project management. It is a file server and has a shared calendar, task management and survey tools as well as collaborative text editing.
  • We conduct our interviews with video calls via Jitsi, a browser-based application that uses WebRTC, does not force you to register an account, and has proven to be quite stable.
  • And of course, it is not just about the tech: We also use images that are published under an open license or are in the public domain.

Running your own open source research infrastructure really is not that difficult. So what keeps people from doing it? First of all, in academic contexts, digital services are most often provided by an IT department that does not have the capacities to fulfill the needs of individual projects. And even though academia has been a stronghold of open source and open infrastructure, the use of Microsoft and Google Suites in schools and universities around the globe is on the rise.

Another issue to take into consideration is liability. Can we really harden our systems in a way that the big corporations can, and make certain that no sensitive data gets accessed by third parties? Well, no, we can’t. This is why we only store anonymized data online. And while storing data with one of the big cloud providers might make it harder to reach for adversaries, it also hands them over freely to the biggest corporations on the planet.