Following Ostrom-Eghbal-Brown into thinking about open source sustainability

Following Titus Brown’s blog post, A framework for thinking about Open Source Sustainability?, which follows Nadia Eghbal’s, An alternate ending to the tragedy of the commons, I’ve finally started reading Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. I urge you to read Nadia’s and Titus’ blog posts.

I’m struck by the idea of Ostrom’s definition of sustainability for a common-pool resource (CPR): “As long as the average rate of withdrawal does not exceed the average rate of replenishment, a renewable resource is sustained over time.”

Titus says that he and his colleagues think that, “the common pool resource in open online projects is effort.”

Following this idea, withdrawal of effort happens in two ways: 1) a person who was working in the community stops expending effort and removes their future effort from the community, and 2) a person working in the community expends some of their effort to do work. And replenishment of effort only can occur if new people are joining the community with the intent to expend effort on the project.

Ostrom defines the kind of CPRs she studies in Governing the Commons as 1) renewable rather than non-renewable, 2) situations where substantial scarcity exists, rather than abundance, and 3) situations in which the user can harm one another, but not situations in which participants can produce major external harm for others.

Three questions I’m looking forward to trying to better understand are:

  1. Do Ostrom’s CPRs match the pool of effort in open online projects? I’m inclined to say mostly, but not fully, in part because I don’t think effort is completely renewable.  Also, if we consider a grazing field or a fishery, the replenishment rate is not a direct function of the users. However, Ostrom does deal with the idea of those who arrange for the provision of the CPR (providers) and those who take actions to ensure the long-term sustainability of the CPR (producers), and recognizes that they frequently are the same.  Is this the equivalent of the providers of effort in open online projects?
  2. What kind of shocks can CPRs survive?  When does governance of CPRs fail after long periods of successful governance and why?
  3. Does Ostrom deal with resources that can be expanded?  Can we expand the pool of effort that goes into open online projects?  Can we get to the point where we have an abundance of effort, rather than a scarcity?

I am interested in what others think.

Back to reading Governing the Commons now…


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Chief Scientist at NCSA, Research Associate Professor in CS, ECE, and the iSchool at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; works on systems and tools (aka cyberinfrastructure) and policy related to computational and data-enabled research, primarily in science and engineering

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