Early on in the course of the IDE project, interviews and literature review were pointing to the insight that meeting in person at work meetings and conferences is of great importance for tying nodes in the distributed system of trust in infrastructure communities.
Although the Internet enabled decentralized cooperation beyond borders and provided the tools and techniques for social computing and -coding: when it comes to the big questions regarding governance, organisational structure, leadership (training) and community cohesion, situatedness in real world group-processes is paramount.
Since 2020 was disrupted by a global public health crisis, the end of a year without any real life- convening provides the perfect opportunity to look back on three in person-events in 2019.
Both the evaluation of program items and the observation of the course of these events can potentially provide further information about the issues being worked on in the communities, the extent to which this work has political connotations, and how alliances are formed on the ground.
All visited events (in three different countries and two continents) were united by one bridging trend: the awareness of the importance of maintenance and support structures for coders.
Furthermore, eventhough completely different in focus and general vibe, the meetings were often attended by members of the same communities, which suggests that there are connecting elements as well as challenges between different interpretations of infrastructure.
The following summaries of the orientation and purpose of Infracon, Maintainers III and MozFest19 do fall short and necessarily carry subjective observations, as not all relevant sessions for the framework could be actively observed in person.
However, there is a good standard of documentation available via reports or etherpads for the three selected events.
A brief characteristic of the events visited is attempted and approaches to strengthening community health and resilient development practices are worked out. Events are listed in chronological order.
Note: All quotes from the events are subject to the Chatham House Rule.
(The CCCamp 2019 happening in Mildenberg, was purposefully left out as observation site since it is not mainly a place for work collaboration, but community building and thus is out of scope in this collection). FOSDEM2020 in Brussels would have made an excellent addition. Unfortunately, data gathering concluded before because of scheduling reasons.
Infrared Network “Infracon”- Barcelona – March 2019
- More Information on the network: https://in.fra.red
- More Information about the conference: https://equalit.ie/en/infracon/
- Programme Overview: https://crabgrass.riseup.net/infracon19/infracon-2019-schedule
Infracon is a global conference for independent Internet service providers working on solutions for autonomous infrastructure. eQualitie (key organisation convening the InfraRed-Network) and Pangea brought together several dozen organizations including Guifi.net, Greenhost, RiseUp, LEAP, Autistici, GreenNet, Colnodo, CodigoSur, AlterMundi, APC, MayFirst, Maadix, Sindominio among others, to work on common web platforms, authentication systems and network solutions.
“InfraRed members include over 20 independent, feminist, cooperative, anti-fascist and alternative service providers from 19 different regions that have come together in solidarity to support one another in our shared work. (…) Our organizations work from different geographic areas in the world and serve different communities, but we hold a common drive to put power into the hands of the people we support. ”
Key areas of work thus are “Solidarity: supporting organizations and the people who run them through financial assistance, networking as well as training events, and organizational development. User and Social Movement Engagement: creating feedback loops with users and social movements to ensure that the technical work informed by experience and meeting actual needs. Technology Platform: creating shared platform that allows participating service providers to maintain their infrastructure using the best practices for security, automation, scalability, and reliability. Shared Infrastructure: creating shared resources for infrastructure deployment, software development and threat mitigation.”
Infrastructure in this context is coded twofold: a) as purpose of developer orgs working on infrastructure, b) as communication infrastructure and accesspoint to resources for these communities.
The programme of Infracon reflected these different needs and was divided between 4 internal working days and a public facing event.
What distinguishes Infracon and the network visibly from other conferences that are directed at Infra-Developers is the rather diverse conference crowd, in respect to gender as well as ratio between European and other international developers.
Partiallly, this phenomenon can be explained by studying the agenda of the InfraRed-Network – their practice is carved out in a highly political context and described as political work, next to being based in technical excellence – and values:
“The service providers of InfraRed believe in rewriting how technology is used. We believe that technology can be used to fight patriarchy, white supremacy, racism, economic inequality, and other forms of social injustice when technology development and use are grounded in the needs of the humans and social movements we work with every day.As technology continues to evolve rapidly, our organizations face daunting challenges of capacity, sustainability, labor, and security. We pledge to face these challenges together, through shared projects, information sharing, and coordination. We commit to overcome barriers of country, gender, language, and financial resources among our members. We commit to prioritize the work and knowledge of women, people of color, people of indigenous/first nation/native communities, and other social groups excluded from access, control, and creation of technology.”
InfraCon was clearly a space that was more self-organized and less structured and focussed on peer learning and establishing new contacts amongst peers.
I was welcomed into the internal part of the event (as non-technical person and academic) to observe and gather feedback on the initial interview guideline of IDE as well as to develop a general understanding of what current needs in the space of independent service providers in terms of scaling & maintenance might be and what they deemed a respectful collaboration between funders and grantees.
- “the amount of money invested should be backed up by strategy and time for intervention, otherwise expensive consultants waste limited resources and we make little progress”
- “problems of using activist/movements to research about without benefit/accountability to movements/organizations”
- “a focus should be on open source licenses and how these facilitate corporate profits; and then this should be brought to users understanding”
- “How can we be autonomous or independent if we cannot decouple from core internet infrastructure. Noone wants to invest in the building blocks. Funders want to pay for things they understand / that look good”
- “the human support factor of legacy/historical infrastructure; the ability to solve what is success and how do we define success?”
Exemplary sessions regarding maintenance have been discussing Infrastructure as Code, f.i. Deflect. “Deflect has been in service since 2013, we’ve grown quickly – we scaled our infrastructure without taking the time to keep up to date with modern software standards because we focused on our clients. This year we are focusing on developing Deflect to be open and reusable for now and the future, keeping our software cycle sustainable. We will focus on some key issues we faced on this modernization process and run through our example Ansible Playbook”
The Maintainers III – Washington – October 2019
- Information on the Maintainers network via Mailinglist and website: https://lists.stevens.edu/mailman/listinfo/themaintainers & https://themaintainers.org/about-us
- Full programme of Maintainers III: https://themaintainers.org/full-miii-program
- Conference report (incl. Software Track): Software Track (highly recommended to browse through): https://drive.google.com/file/d/15vysJV_rNZLFtOiA_Z1zArIGdyO-ro4J/view; Main consolidated report: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56a8e2fca12f446482d67a7a/t/5efc7ef8f3fca9207cd786f7/1593605882509/PUBLISHED+Post-MIII+Conference+Report+07012020.pdf
The Maintainers is a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain the human-built world.
Members come from a variety of backgrounds, including engineers and business leaders, academic historians and social scientists, government and non-profit agencies, artists, activists, coders, and more.
Maintainers III was the third in a series of conferences. The curators convened a dedicated track about Software Maintenance (and one year prior at APIDays 2018 in Paris european branch of the conference had exclusively focused on maintenance in FOSS communities):
“Software is a critical element of our information infrastructure, and maintainers ensure it is reliable and secure. However, we currently lack the tools, business models, and cultural forms of recognition that are needed to sustain the work of software maintainers. This track is a space for maintainers to connect, share experiences, and explore sustainable community, governance practices, standards, and business models.”
The programme was of outstanding (academic) quality and eventhough there were three parallel tracks running with different topics, the different crowds mixed and interesting conversations spun.
The focus was clearly on analysis and reflection, but i have never witnessed so many coders at a academic/practitioners convening opening up about their daily challenges in maintaining code, a healthy work-life balance and managing expectations. “Since in FOSS communities, you are always indebted to the next pull request.”
Exemplary sessions regarding maintenance and infrastructure included:
- Invisible Work in Highly-Visible Roles? Examining Burnout in Free/Open-Source Software Maintainers, discussing how maintenance intersects with issues of burnout, visible/invisible work, and recognition, based on a study (funded by FORD/SLOAN as well) investigating these issues in free and/or open-source software (F/OSS) development projects.
- Unruly Bodies of Code in Time, looking at how software ages, decays, obsolesces – is often left unconsidered as something that impacts practices of software work. “Many have turned to historical software objects and have developed methods to read forensically, archaeologically, or genealogically such ephemeral forms of media. But little consideration for how coders and software developers deal with and read code as a historical object.”
- OSS as Critical Digital Infrastructure: Legal Technologies and Institutional Design , exploring legal devices and institutions to best support open source elements of digital infrastructure, reflexively with rigorous examination of problems of open source software creation, release, and maintenance.
- Bad Maintenance, explaining how the security requirements of the Domain Name System (DNS) and its Security Extensions (DNSSEC) can be understood as sociotechnical maintenance. Understanding the role of maintenance in DNS and DNSSEC can, in turn, the conveners suggested, help reassess maintenance as more (or less) than a social good, as a practice that can produce good or bad consequences for a given social group.
MozFest 2019 – London – October 2019
- General Information on MozFest:
- Internet Health field at Mozilla
- Full programme of MozFest 2019 (mirrored at Discourse): https://discourse.mozilla.org/c/mozfest/sessions/299
- POSSE at Mozilla: https://www.mozillapulse.org/entry/1445 / https://posse.community/
MozFest is built on the foundation of federated design, open principles, and movement organising. In its own depiction, it is “part art, tech and society convening, part maker festival, and the premiere gathering for activists in diverse global movements fighting for a more humane digital world”.
Part of the diverse crowd present at the conference are developers from and collaborating with OS projects in Mozilla (Corporation). These FOSS developers find points of interests mainly in the “Openness” and decentralization tracks.
Each year has a specific thematic focus that is catered to throughout the different strands of the festival, all curated by appointed wranglers, working as a team.
“At MozFest 2019, we’ll focus the collective power of the internet health movement on making today’s internet more humane. For one full week in London, we’ll create art to showcase how flawed AI can sometimes be — and then write code to fix it. We’ll brainstorm products and policies that put social responsibility, ethics, and the user first. And we’ll envision the challenges and opportunities of the decade to come.”
In this particular focus, one again may witness a value-based approach to technology development.
Deriving from the programme and the workshops in which i was present, there is clear attention brought to the maintenance side of code, and also the requirements of community health. There are support structures in place, addressing this goal specifically.
As part of the Open Leaders cohort in 2019, f.i. the idea for POSSE was developed. POSSE is a peer mentorship program that empowers OSS practitioners with skills in open leadership and tools to build healthy, sustainable open source communities. The POSSE program covers principles in open leadership, open source licenses, metrics to measure community and project health, ways to grow your community, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability.
Interestingly, there was a session about the Infrared Network in the line-up, with a completely different set of people present than at InfraCon in the beginning of the year.
Exemplary Sessions regarding maintenance and infrastructure at MozFest included:
- MOSS Roundtable: Best Practices in Open Source – Sessions, discussing best practices for managing open source projects, including tips regarding sustainability, diversity, inclusivity and community growth.
- Infrared: Cooperation in decentralized infrastructure, collecting ideas on how to improve the cooperation in decentralized systems. Increase understanding and appreciation of governance and trust models in decentralized infrastructure.
- An offrenda to tech ghosts, discussing the effects of dead or abandoned tech projects on tech and end users, and how it relates to death through the lens of Dia De Los Muertos as well as building practices for open source maintainers to consider their exit strategy for the code they write.
As conclusion an general learning from all the conversations and observations, i´d like to re-deploy a quote found on allcontributors.org , a tool that fellow grantee Stuart Geiger introduced me to in Washington at Maintainers III:
“People are giving themselves and their free time to contribute to open source projects in so many ways. We believe everyone should be praised for their contributions (code or not).”
Whereas often the work of community builders and software maintainers is invisible to users, convenings and conferences are places, where you are able to pin faces to the products you use regularly or rely on unwittingly.
Events are a good starting point to gain a deeper understanding about the socio-technical processes behind code.
The burden of carrying out introductions to the specifics of the many technical projects present at these spaces shouldn´t weigh on the shoulders of members of the community, although they function a highly performative API.
But we should all be able to educate ourselves at the aforementioned spaces, make connections, technical and emotional. Creating these spaces requires financial support (of funders), for being present together is costly this days – but highly valuable and a long- term investment in FOSS infrastructure. It is one of the many implicit preconditions of infrastructure and (human) networks, that thoughts and resources are allocated to these convenings – and negotiate, how open or closed they need to be to cater to the needs to seasoned maintainers and newcomers alike.