Building Blocks: Funding Digital Infrastructure From the Ground Up

  • With the support of the Digital Infrastructure Fund, we partnered with 9 regional partners and Superrr Lab to design a set of tools and resources that enable digital infrastructure funders to explore opportunities and address challenges in funding. 
  • Using human centered design research, we generated tools that are grounded in the principle that funders should listen to the communities they serve.
  • Building Blocks includes Opportunities, a definition, regional contexts, case studies on funding mechanisms, six narrative future scenarios, and tools and resources. 

The Building Blocks of Open-Source Digital Infrastructure Funding

Many of us take infrastructure for granted almost by definition. If we thought about plumbing and sewers every time we turned on the tap, if we pondered the power grid every time we charged a phone, we’d hardly be able to focus. The tech tools we use are no exception; they are infrastructure, and most of the time, their job is to “just work” and hide from notice. 

At the same time, though, someone does have to think about infrastructure; someone has to maintain it, and someone has to fund it. The security and maintenance of this code is precarious, and depends on committed time and effort from human volunteers. As the 2016 report “Roads and Bridges: the Unseen Labor Behind our Digital Infrastructure” says, “The current state of our digital infrastructure is one of the most poorly understood issues of our time.” (Relatedly, as the venerable webcomic xkcd puts it, all modern digital infrastructure depends on “a project some random person in Nebraska has been thanklessly maintaining since 2003.”)

Our goal: to equip the ethical tech community of developers, maintainers, activists, designers, and funders with tools to support this critical enterprise. The Digital Infrastructure Grants have been key investments in the future sustainability of open source code. Thanks to this grant, we and our partners created Building Blocks

Building Blocks is a multifaceted collection: it’s a set of actionable tools, contextual resources, practical guides, case studies, regional narratives, and speculative futures. Building Blocks is for funders, either those new to supporting digital infrastructure or those hoping to improve and refine their approach. Building Blocks can also be useful for others - such as researchers, activists, and designers - looking to connect and understand how to support the open source community.

Check out our first blog post on the toolkit, where we explore funder personas and talk about our geographic approach. 

Why a toolkit?

Simply Secure, as a design non-profit working closely with infrastructure funders, has advised a number of funders and projects on improving their funding and program design practices. Our projects in this area include:

  • On Trust and Transparency (a collaboration with Luminate), a 2018 report uncovering grantees’ experience of the funding process
  • A redesign of the Open Technology Fund’s primary funding program
  • A funding identity and strategy workshop with the Prototype Fund
  • Impact evaluations for Mozilla Open Source Support and Fellowships and Awards programs

Throughout these projects, one consistent theme keeps coming up: Funders need to listen to the communities they fund.

As a part of the public interest technology, digital rights, open source, and internet freedom communities, we aim to make this practice of listening into the new industry standard. We have listened to funders, listened to grantees, and helped both funders and grantees learn to listen to each other. 

We’ve noticed three layers of needs to be addressed: 

  • that of the funders
  • of the project teams they fund,
  • and of the end users of these funded projects. 

Though we designed Building Blocks primarily for funders, we always kept in mind how improving the funding practices would also benefit grantees and their users in the long run. Our ultimate goal is to improve the relationships between all these stakeholders in order to nourish the digital infrastructure ecosystem as a whole.

Human-Centered Program Design

The words “design for funders” might first evoke improving the interface of a funder’s web application platform. A usable, accessible, and friendly application platform is certainly a foundational element. But for us, design is about working at the relationship level, and letting the artifacts and touchpoints – rubrics, metrics, forms, processes – flow from the qualities of that relationship. Funding free and open source software (FOSS) often requires a certain amount of flexibility that is not typically seen in the ways traditional funding programs are designed. Our approach, then, was not to create a playbook for better FOSS funding, but to create a set of modular tools – or “building blocks” – to help funders develop a sustainable, relationship-based approach that emphasizes listening to communities.

The Building Blocks

Our design approach to the creation of the Building Blocks is grounded in human-centered design (HCD) and service design. In following these two principles, we committed to engaging funders, applicants, and advisors by conducting expert interviews, facilitating design workshops, and working closely with regional partners. We wanted to create a set of tools and resources that are specific to the varied needs of funders, allowing them to address and explore complex challenges such as power dynamics, identity and strategy, and impact measurement. Building Blocks provide more than just design exercises that focus on conducting needs assessments or crafting a new program in a more flexible way. They serve as a reflection mechanism for reviewing, evaluating, improvising, and strengthening program designs in times of uncertainty. 

  • Opportunities: Curated starting points of resources and tools, around a unifying subject: Funding Approach and Process, Identity & Strategy, Community Engagement, and Technology.
  • Defining Digital Infrastructure: Get started by exploring a definition and overview, as well as four example profiles of different funders.
  • Regional Contexts: Our 9 regional partners’ present research syntheses on digital infrastructure funding in the context of their regions of the world.
  • Funding Mechanisms: Four case studies that spotlight different digital infrastructure funding mechanisms and funders.
  • Narrative Futures: Six future scenarios, created by Superrr Lab, that spark inspiration on how we can shape the digital future in a collaborative, sustainable and equal way.
  • Explore our Building Blocks: A full list of tools + guides for current and future digital infrastructure funders to reflect, engage with grantees, hold workshops, and build strategy.

This work could not have been completed without the help of many partners, including Superrr Lab in Berlin, who synthesized research from our joint collaboration Roadwork Ahead, which outlines the needs of open source communities. Superrr also created six Narrative Futures which tie digital infrastructure to other funding priorities and global issues by sparking inspiration on how we can shape the digital future in a collaborative, sustainable and equal way.

We also collaborated with 9 regional partners, representing 9 regions - East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, Oceania, India/SE Asia, Europe, South + Latin America (one partner exploring lower-income countries, the other higher-income countries), and Brazil. The partners presented research syntheses on digital infrastructure funding in their respective regions around the world.

Going Forward

There is lots to build on in the toolkit to better support funders. Here’s a few things that are top of mind:

  • First, we are developing plans to  increase the reach and impact of the toolkit - likely through engagement opportunities such as events and workshops. 
  • We also hope to incorporate open feedback mechanisms to hear about how these tools are implemented in practice
  • We will add tools and resources as needs arise. 
  • The regional contexts are a great window into global nuances of digital infrastructure, but we hope to build on the localization by translating parts of the toolkit, and curating sets of resources specific to different regional contexts.

As for funders themselves, the support we received in creating Building Blocks is in itself an encouraging sign for the future of sustainable digital infrastructure. The Digital Infrastructure Grants came to be because a consortium of funders — Ford Foundation, Sloan Foundation, Omidyar Network, Mozilla Foundation, and Open Society Foundations — had a shared goal of understanding how digital infrastructure is maintained. Looking ahead in this ecosystem, a promising new initiative by Schmidt Futures Plaintext Group - the Open Source Software Virtual Incubator - is an innovative approach with the goal of “funding systemic improvements in the open source software ecosystem.” In the spirit of open source, the entire submission process is open and hosted on Github. 

While FOSS is upheld by both unpaid volunteer efforts and paid company-backed financial and time investment, the volunteer-led FOSS infrastructure are the projects that are the ‘unseen’ efforts to under-pin the critical digital infrastructure of the web. It can be challenging to coordinate, share resources, and define funding strategies for these volunteer community initiatives until they are listened to and brought into the conversation about how to best support them alongside FOSS with better ‘visibility’. A sensitive, localized approach is essential, and funders around the world could benefit from meeting maintainers where they are and working with them to define their needs. Our hope is  that the tools and resources in Building Blocks help launch those conversations, and get funders thinking about how to build a digital infrastructure sustainability portfolio collaboratively with the community of contributors and maintainers making it all possible.

Project Credit

Simply Secure 

SUPERRR Lab

Regional Partners

2iC Lab

Amarela

TEDIC

Michelle Barker

Narcisse Mbunzama Lokwa

The IO Foundation

Wainaina Mungai

Chukwuyere Izuogu

Project funded by: Digital Infrastructure Grants (Ford Foundation, Sloan Foundation, Mozilla, Omidyar Network and Open Society Foundations)

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