CORDIS - EU research results



Reporting period: 2017-09-16 to 2019-09-15

The purpose of the project was to understand how open source sustainability is managed beyond technical production environments. Since open source software is increasingly common and no longer the sole remit of software developers, it is important to understand how it is sustained in more open social contexts.

There is one particular software type that is becoming increasingly relevant and important: open source civic tech platforms which can be considered meta open source projects. Such systems help create direct communication links to its citizenry. Recently, the Conference on the Future of Europe has launched such a platform. Many such platforms tend to be open source, in part because they can leverage a great number of digital activists interested in innovating and sustaining democratic institutions. In a context of democratic disenchantment, open source can play an important role in fostering democratic societies and opening our cities to its citizens.

The project’s resulting output provides a theoretical basis from which to study open source sustainability beyond technical environments. In particular, one of the derived frameworks suggests that there exist different types of sustainability that interact and may conflict with each other. By extending sustainability beyond the technical scope, we increase our ability to assess the validity of larger open source projects that have become part of non-technical organisations of work and of the social. The findings suggest that such projects require the deployment of a participatory infrastructure that must be adapted to tap into and balance the passions and interests of potential participants. These findings can be exploited to anticipate the sustainability requirements of non-technical open source initiatives which face greater challenges than technical open source ones due to the higher heterogeneity of participants.
This project mainly relied on a longitudinal ethnographic research design, with the addition of interview data, and public documents to study the development and deployment of one of the most ambitious open source civic tech platform at the time. As one of the first of its kind, and being open source, the platform involved digital activists at the forefront of change, joined by administrative staff, civil servants, design experts, and citizens. The data collection took part in Madrid, with the support of Madrid's public innovation lab.

The early theoretical work surveyed more than 700 papers to develop a framework from which to analyse the sustainability of the platform, particularly events that, on their own, would increase the overall sustainability of the project, but taken together, would hamper it. In this sense, we found that sustainability in open source was relative and not absolute.

The empirical work followed specific initiatives put in place to sustain the project, both its code and its deployment. As the project took participation metrics to equate sustainability with success (as is common in open source), most of the initiatives were geared towards such increasing participation. Nonetheless, the actors involved were deeply analytical as to the importance and non-importance of such measures, revealing the depth of complexity to promote alternative measures as valid signs of sustainability (e.g. promoting citizenship, democratising participation, etc.). The variety of initiatives put in place showed that such open source social projects, especially civic tech ones, face an interfacing dilemma: how to interface with the social (in this case, the city)? The ambiguity in the role of actors and their heterogeneity creates real difficulties: whose voice should be captured? Can participation be equal to all?

One possible solution is to enact different processes to create different communities. These, we found, relied on the passions and interests of actors, not as emotions, but as two organisational vectors that coordinated alternative and complementary ways of participating. This is often taken for granted in open source, but the passion to learn is (increasingly) meeting with interests (learning skills, financial interests as skill signalling, etc.). Each of these modes of participation effected different kinds of participation qualities, which lead to different kinds of democratic qualities. Passionate participation lead to participation more tied to the territory, more genuine in that sense. Interested participation (which may well have started as a passion) involved more technical and scalable qualities.
These results have been disseminated both in academic circles, as well as to practitioner, public bodies, and citizens. Working closely with the Madrid's public innovation lab, rules for participation board games were developed that formalised how participation could be sustained. The research involved engagement activities to help foster sustainable communities and analyse how open source democratic ICTs can be sustainable beyond their code. The possibility to engage directly with citizens, digital activists, and practitioners in general and throughout the project has been invaluable for the development of this research and its insights. Many articles were drafted and are currently under review in top-tier outlets that recount, as well as dissemination articles that showcase the project's findings (e.g. at and others that challenged more generally the influence of (certain) digital imaginaries over the development of our cities (e.g. at LSE business review). The results of the project have resulted in continuous participation to some of the most important conferences in the field and in key European university.
This is one of the first studies to look at the sustainability of open source beyond technical environments. With open source becoming mainstream, how it can be sustained outside of coding environments is going to be increasingly important. In particular, the application of open source methodologies and ethos to building participatory technologies that operate outside market logics, behooves us to understand how such projects form and are sustained.

This project has offered tangible insights into the sustainable development of open source, usable by both coders, public officials, and digital activists. The co-existence of different kinds of open source sustainability means that typical metrics based on participation are not enough. Indeed, large numbers of participants can precipitate a loss of participation quality and values (e.g. reciprocity). Building on an increasingly important domain, civic tech platforms, it challenges processes of participation which do not take into account the participative conditions of those it wants to include. These processes of participation can have lasting consequences for the predominance of certain voices over others, as well as difficulties in achieving participation numbers and quality of participation that would legitimise such processes. Open source politics, however, can be a good example to understand how to develop sustainable communities outside of its code. For such communities to exist, an accompanying participatory infrastructure has to be deployed to mediate participation events (e.g. in public libraries or schools) to co-construct proposals.
Interfacing a city to sustain an open source civic tech platform
How different kinds of sustainability interact
Mobilising participation to create sustainability