The Festival of Maintenance and software

Posted by j.laird on 16 September 2020 - 2:30pm

A cartoon showing all modern infrastructure balancing on a project someone has been thanklessly maintaining
Image from https://xkcd.com/2347/

By 2019 Institute Fellow Laura James

This is an abridged version of a post on Laura's blog.

I’m a slightly left-field Software Sustainability Institute fellow. My Fellowship is structured around the Festival of Maintenance, a celebration of those who maintain different parts of our world and how they do it. It recognises the often hidden work done in repair, custodianship, stewardship, tending and caring for the things that matter.

So what has this got to do with software? From the start, the Festival has been about ideas of maintenance across different fields, and seeing what they have to say to each other. As I wrote back in 2018: 

The Festival will bring together traditional disciplines of maintenance, repair and stewardship, with new forms such as supporting digital products, sustaining open source software, and moderating online communities. The Festival aims to share learning around maintainer skills and tools and how maintenance is resourced and rewarded, and to boost the morale of maintainers across sectors with inspiring ideas and stories... raising awareness more widely of the value of this work and where it sits within our society.

The digital space is really interesting here and the interests of the Software Sustainability Institute fit in several ways. There is maintenance of our software infrastructures - for instance, the underlying open source systems which underpin so much of today’s computing, internet and research tools, such as Linux or OpenSSL. There’s end user software too, which we might not think of as infrastructure, although we depend heavily on some of the apps and platforms which drive our every day interactions -  e.g. Twitter, Google Drive, or even just the simple to do list app I use on my phone - these all take maintenance, because digital systems are not unchanging and isolated.

Next, there’s data and content, whether it’s research data or the descriptions of how software works, which often need maintenance to keep them up to date (think of Wikipedia) and usefully interconnected and annotated and available (think of arxiv or the Internet Archive). Even though storage might seem cheap or even free, the bits have to be preserved, we need to be able to open old file formats in some way, to keep disks spinning and so on.

Finally, computing is really about people, and looking after the teams, communities and individuals who work in and around software is also essential maintenance - and this social maintenance and care is often undervalued and appreciated. There are many examples of this in this hackernews thread.

Much of what we’ve found most interesting in the Festival conversations are unexpected perspectives, which often touch on some of the aspects of maintenance which make it hard to communicate and to prioritise.  Maintenance is generally neglected, for multiple reasons - power, status, short-termism, collective action problems, moral ‘lousyness,’ and biases (see The Maintainers July 2019 article). 

Open source software (OSS) is interesting in terms of maintenance status. In many fields maintainers are low status, often overlooked. In OSS they may be volunteers, but to be a maintainer of a tool or package is a high status role, good for professional development and prestige. Ford Foundation and others have been supporting research into the world of critical digital infrastructure - a subset of software maintenance - and the results are starting to come out. This work is uncovering insights into issues around the privilege of volunteer labour, diversity and inclusion, and the incentives around open source maintenance.

Festival of Maintenance

At the Festival of Maintenance we’re exploring these things and more. At the 2018 Festival, we heard from Chris Mills who talked about the work of the MDN writers’ team at Mozilla, maintaining open standards, and the open web. Openness makes it easier to do things and to maintain things. There’s a lot to maintain at Mozilla and in the open source documentation space though!

We also had a great talk from Adrian McEwen of DoES Liverpool on how to organise the work of fixing and improving things in a volunteer community - something which applies to many software communities as well as shared spaces and maker spaces like DoES. If you mention something that’s broken, it’s easy for folks to respond “well volunteered!” and hand the work to the person who noticed the problem — discouraging people from actually highlighting problems. DoES have developed a “Somebody should” list on GitHub, which tracks things that need to get done and when they are fixed. This also recognises the labour of maintenance, as you can see who did something, and builds knowledge of how things were fixed. 

We’re very interested in how we can communicate about maintenance better, because this ought to make it easier to get others to recognise and prioritise this work. Nonetheless, we’ve found that it’s useful to be a little mysterious ourselves at the Festival! In 2019’s Festival report I wrote:

The Festival perhaps resists definition, and maybe that’s partly how we are differentiated from The Maintainers, the Maintainerati and other groups. It’s interesting to consider how the maintenance ‘agenda’ is shaped by the different backgrounds and disciplines that people bring to the Festival – and the challenges of drawing an audience that represents diversity across dimensions. We are aware of the lack of diversity in some of the fields that naturally gravitate towards maintenance ideas, and hope to remain broad and interesting and accessible to both maintainers and the ‘maintenance curious’ from all backgrounds. It is tempting to categorise and structure these conversations, but we are starting to think that our role is to start conversations and be provocative, and to allow and encourage all kinds of people to be involved.

Starting with software in mind has been an incredibly helpful way into what we now see as a larger “maintenance mindset.” Coming from a technology background, I hope we continue to include digital systems and open source as part of our conversations at the Festival.  It’s a sector where the incredible hype and focus on the new and innovative is especially pernicious, and where balancing this with consideration of sustainability, care and stewardship is essential. 

Maintenance is a difficult topic to communicate - comprising care, repair, cooperation and accountability. This is compounded in the case of digital infrastructure maintenance by the invisibility and complexity of much digital infrastructure, the gaps in the general population’s digital understanding, and the strangeness for many people of aspects of the internet-era knowledge economy. In addition, maintenance is not a ‘sexy’ topic and infrastructure - if it isn't your core business, creating value directly - is also not particularly interesting to the executives who assign resources within tech businesses. 

Whilst academic understanding of digital infrastructure, and deeper appreciation of the challenges and opportunities around open source infrastructure development and stewardship, is growing, there is still a gap in terms of making this something that key people in the tech sector are ready to invest in. We want executives and teams to be able to tell compelling, positive maintenance stories - drawn from across industries and activities - that deepen their understanding of digital infrastructure and make cases for supporting it. We hope the work of the Festival of Maintenance will uncover new stories like this, by exploring maintenance across our world, and helping people understand it - and perform and support it - in new ways.

Thinking about the maintenance of software (and the communities that do it) has been an incredibly helpful way in to the field of maintenance. We want to use the Festival to help make it less opaque for others, too. As we become ever more dependent on the internet and computing across ever more aspects of our lives, we need to maintain them well. 


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