Open source software is everywhere. On phones, laptops, watches and even household appliances.

The appetite for this type of free, public code is ferocious, but a scarcity of resources to maintain some of the less visible software, on which other software is dependent, has left key parts of the ecosystem vulnerable.

Nadia Eghbal works on improving the developer experience as part of the product team at GitHub in San Francisco. Github is the world’s largest software collaboration platform, boasting 24 million users across 200 countries.

Nadia Eghbal by Helena Price (used with permission).

Prior to joining GitHub, Eghbal conducted comprehensive research into public software funding. She wanted to understand what types of projects were failing to attract venture capital, and why.

Her work culminated in a database of projects and a Ford Foundation report in which she compared digital infrastructure – defined by Eghbal as the tools needed to build software – to infrastructure we use to navigate the physical world: roads and bridges.

Eghbal concluded that it was the projects designed to maintain this infrastructure that attract the least investment, referring to it as “the Internet’s biggest blind spot.”

Silicon Valley and technology-dependent organizations would not survive without digital infrastructure: servers, programming languages, frameworks and libraries. All of which are overwhelmingly based on free and open source code.

That digital infrastructure also made it vastly cheaper to start a company. Yet they aren’t investing enough in its upkeep.

Those who maintain the infrastructure often do so for free because of their commitment to the open source community, as well as its ideals. The work is often demanding, and many newcomers to it take open source for granted, not understanding the level of commitment it takes to sustain the work

“I found that everyone assumed that open source was in this rosy state. But if you talked to maintainers they painted a very different picture. They were not feeling supported in a lot of ways, not just financially, but they also feel the pressure of having to respond and work with these really large communities,” says Eghbal.

“There isn’t a lot of understanding of the norms of how to be a good open source citizen. We’re seeing people asking for things and not actually contributing back. And open source can’t sustainably function in that way,” says Eghbal.

At GitHub, Eghbal helped work on a survey of 5,500 software developers in 2017 to seek general advice on how to foster healthier open source communities, and prevent low morale and burnout. She also co-authored a series of Open Source Guides with the same goal.

According to the survey findings, increasing participation on documentation that helps outline a project’s process, is a key way to ease the strain on maintainers by helping to communicate to others the project’s scope, past contributions and a code of conduct.

The survey also surfaced the destructive effect that “negative interactions” like arguments or harassment can have on the sustainability of an open source project community. “Even just witnessing a negative interaction makes you want to participate less,” says Eghbal.

Many companies do help contribute to digital infrastructure maintenance by encouraging staff to spend paid work hours contributing to open source projects. Broader ongoing participation and support is necessary for the Internet to be healthy for generations to come.

Further reading:

Open Source Guides
Open Source Survey, GitHub (2017)
How I Stumbled Upon The Internet’s Biggest Blind Spot, Nadia Eghbal (2016)
Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure, Ford Foundation (2017)