Since January, we’ve been working to develop a research strategy that builds on our previous work with a comprehensive plan for advancing our understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and ultimate goals for open technologies and systems supporting research and scholarship. In the past three months, we’ve launched the Catalog of Infrastructure Services (COIs) and paused our funding exploration to explore some foundational concepts essential to our work. We’ve also been exploring key work in adjacent fields of study that we feel have the potential to dramatically advance our understanding of how infrastructure is best understood and supported in research and scholarly communication.
The following is a brief summary of this work, presenting our current plans for COIs, our work understanding the nature of infrastructure from the available literature, and our initial working models for understanding the funding and operation of infrastructure services from the adjacent field of water supply and sanitation. To share this research work, we’re piloting a format called a “preliminary investigation” that is modelled on Open Philanthropy’s “shallow investigation,” a format that allows us to survey a particular topic for applicability, summarise key points, and identify areas of future study.
We will be releasing our first preliminary investigations detailing the work outlined in this update in the coming weeks for reflection and feedback from the community.
Since launching our Catalog of Infrastructure Services (COIs) in January of this year, we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, including organisations interested in having their services listed in the catalogue. We’ve also gotten other questions about our process and future plans for COIs. While we tried to address some of these in our FAQ, it seems appropriate for us to provide more detail on the future of COIs as it stands now and ask for your help as we chart a path forward.
Intended as a prototype to display the available information on open services and systems supporting research and scholarly communication, COIs has proven to be useful and interesting to people in the open research and scholarly communication spaces, particularly for the mix of service history, delivery notes, financial details, and governance information. In line with our commitment to openness and transparency, we are working on public documentation beyond the initial launch blogpost and FAQ that better describes the process of collecting this data and documents key decisions we made in how this data was analysed and displayed. We look forward to releasing this in the next few weeks as a Gitbook-style reference on our HackMD instance and welcome your feedback on how the documentation can be improved and expanded for clarity and understanding.
One thing that became immediately clear to us as we worked on COIs was that our process of creating the prototype was unsustainable. Creating the data set supporting COIs was a learning experience for us as a research team and ended up being a very manual process that is unsustainable as we think about expanding COIs to include additional services. After releasing the documentation, we intend to conduct both an internal review of the application and how we can best support the maintenance and expansion of COIs, as well as conduct an external review through an interest survey intended for organisations that are interested in having their services listed in COIs. In this survey, we’ll be asking respondents about the availability of key pieces of information and how best to provide it. Our hope is to make the data submission process as easy as possible for both the organisations submitting the data and our team compiling the data for inclusion in COIs. We look forward to the input from the respondents and will be making the data from both reviews (internal and external) public as soon as they’re analysed.
With this information, we’ll have gathered the requirements necessary to engage the resources we need to create the intake process for additional services, keep the existing data updated, and expand the information available in COIs. We’ll open the submission process and keep it open on a rolling basis for organisations to provide information. We also intend to develop a survey instrument for soliciting feedback from COIs users and will be sharing those plans once they are finalised.
We thank everyone who’s provided feedback on COIs and look forward to helping build a resource for stakeholders of all kinds, including funders, providers, sponsors, and users.
We were created with a vision of helping increase investment in critical services that make research and scholarly communication easier, more comprehensive, and more inclusive, particularly for those without the resources (financial, social, cultural, etc.) to use commercial and for-profit services. While we’ve had a good working definition of infrastructure guiding us in our initial work, we’ve come to a point where a deeper understanding of “infrastructure” as a concept has become important.
Many services can easily claim to being infrastructure and without a clearer understanding of what makes a tool infrastructure, it’s been hard to make the case for infrastructure and identify the unique needs of infrastructure services. This is essential to assessing the short-term, medium-term, and long-term needs of these services and build a positive vision for what an infrastructure (or infrastructures depending on your orientation) of open systems and services looks like that supports research and scholarly communication.
To answer this question, we’ve looked at the various ways infrastructure has been understood more generally in the academic literature and in scholarly communication in particular. We will be publishing a preliminary investigation into this question soon that outlines the various perspectives on the definition of infrastructure but I’d like to preview some of those arguments with a brief synopsis:
- Infrastructure serves a key function that is shared by a number of actors who derive value from not having to individually create, maintain, and support the tools, systems, and processes necessary for this function to be carried out.
- Infrastructure by its nature is invisible or at least so highly embedded as to not be immediately visible. We don’t think about infrastructure until it doesn’t work or isn’t available or, in the case of various for-profit and commercial business models, becomes too cost-prohibitive to be used by those without the willingness or ability to pay for it.
- Infrastructure isn’t just technical, but primarily socio-technical in that the physical structures have a social context in which they are embedded. They are both an expression of particular values and norms, as well as reinforce those values and norms by their very existence and operation.
- Infrastructure is dynamic, with the various components that constitute it changing by emerging, declining, shifting function, evolving purpose, or otherwise responding to the needs of those who build, maintain, and utilise the infrastructure for the functions they require.
We look forward to sharing much more detail about the work we’ve done and invite feedback. Our goal is to help elevate the conversation about infrastructure, building the case for why infrastructure needs more and different investment than it has already received, while increasing awareness about the critical and often unique issues open infrastructure services face compared to standard research projects and other scholarly activities. We look forward to having you join that conversation with us.
Water Supply and Sanitation Financing Case Study
In looking at infrastructure more broadly, we’ve been particularly interested in the case of financing water sanitation and supply services. As a precious and necessary resource, water supply is critical to the flourishing of human communities. At a small scale, individuals can develop and maintain their own access to water, but at a point, this no longer becomes feasible or rational with respect to the management of a scarce resource. A village pump no longer has sufficient supply to meet the drinking needs of the community as well as the supply for crops, animals, and other needs. At that point, a centralised utility is created that expands capacity and manages the resource for the good of the community.
Looking at how this service is financed has been the work of various international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Health Organisation (WHO), and the IRC (the organisation formerly known as the International Reference Centre for Community Water Supply and Sanitation). Each of these organisations has worked to define the key elements of financing that take into account the experience of both affluent nations and economically developing nations.
Looking particularly at the OECD, they’ve developed an approach called the 3Ts: tariffs, taxes, and transfers. In this model, tariffs are the fees charged to users of the water system for the services being provided. Taxes are the government taxes levied across the jurisdiction that is allocated to funding the infrastructure as a service to everyone, irrespective of the usage of the service. Transfers are the donations and other contributions made to improve the services provided, usually on a time-limited basis.
The IRC has developed a cost model that looks at how the service is paid for, with attention to distinguishing the operating expenses that make the day-to-day provision of the service possible from the capital expenses that help expand capacity and improve the delivery of the service. There are other cost categories worth exploring, but these two primary categories are important for distinguishing the type of income that should be diverted to these costs. Tariffs and taxes are best applied to operating expenses, while transfers are best applied to capital expenditures. This matches the timeframes of each type of revenue and costs. Both donations and capital expenditures are time-limited and outcomes focused, while operating costs are more enduring and consistent, like tariffs and taxes (one hopes).
The WHO has elaborated on this work with their TrackFin Initiative and we look forward to sharing more of the nuances in each model and what it means for open infrastructure services in a preliminary investigation we look forward to releasing soon for feedback.
We hope this update is useful for those interested in understanding the direction IOI is moving and we look forward to engaging in dialogue with all of those interested in developing these ideas further as we realise a collaborative vision for what open infrastructure can be and the value it can deliver.