Towards Engineering Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) Ecosystems for Impact and Sustainability

NII Shonan Meeting:

@ Shonan Village Center June 26-29, 2017


  • Brian Fitzgerald, University of Limerick,  Ireland
  • Audris Mockus, University of Tennessee, USA
  • Minghui Zhou, Peking University, China


Free/libre open source ecosystems such as the Linux kernel, have had a tremendous impact on computing and society and have captured the attention of businesses, researchers, and policy makers. Millions of participants, from independent volunteers to those representing companies or government organizations, have created and maintain massive numbers of software projects, ranging from individual scratch space or classroom assignments, to critical infrastructure projects such as the Linux Kernel, OpenStack, Docker or Android.
The spectrum and scale of FLOSS has substantially expanded in recent years, as has its popularity. The combination of distributed version control and social media features have created “transparent” environments that facilitate the scaling up of the ecosystems to millions of repositories and developers [1]. Despite the substantial amount of research on FLOSS in disciplines such as software development, organizational science, management, and social sciences, it remains unclear how and why FLOSS ecosystems form, how they achieve their impact, or how they sustain themselves. The open nature of these communities and the associated vast collections of operational data represent a tantalizing possibility to discover the mechanisms by which such ecosystems form and operate. Achieving such understanding would inform approaches to structuring future open source communities, and could reveal ways to nudge the behavior of individuals and groups involved towards greater sustainability of FLOSS ecosystems.
Research on FLOSS phenomena has been ongoing for almost two decades. From an economic perspective, the most common topics involve motivation and organization: Why do the participants in FLOSS contribute without material compensation usually, and how do such apparently unstructured and distributed organizations survive and succeed? Early research focused on understanding the nature of FLOSS development practice and the reasons underpinning FLOSS success [2], the study of user innovation [3], and the motivation of participants [4, 5]. A great deal of effort has been devoted to investigating communities, e.g., the strategies and processes by which newcomers join [6].
The nature of group and ecosystem sustainability has also been investigated. For example, how a sustainable group evolves [7], how online communities should encourage commitment [8], how successful FLOSS project participants progressively enroll a network of human and material allies to sup- port their efforts [9], how the congruence of values between the individual and their organization affects turnover [10], and what impact the initial willingness and project environment have on newcomers’ long term participation [11, 12].
As commercial participation in FLOSS has become common, the question of how to combine FLOSS practice with commercial practice has received more attention. For example, how the new phenomenon (OSS 2.0) is significantly different from its FLOSS antecedent is discussed in [13]. Borrowing FLOSS style project structure, many organizations are embracing a global sourcing strategy which has been termed open sourcing [14]. Successful hybrid projects have been studied to help understand how to improve upon existing software development practice. The motivation of commercial participation has also been extensively studied, see, e.g., [15, 16, 17, 18]. Various business strategies have been identified and analyzed in, e.g., [19, 20, 21, 22]. The study of the impact that commercial participation has on communities is also being studied currently [23, 24]. The FLOSS phenomenon has also served as a proof-of-concept which has led to interest in initiatives such as inner source [25] and crowd sourcing [26].
This proposed Shonan meeting will bring together a blend of established and young researchers
involved in studying the FLOSS phenomenon from software engineering, human computer interaction, computer-supported cooperative work, data mining, cognitive science, psychology, operations research, organization management, and complex systems domains. Industry practitioners with experience in various FLOSS aspects will also be included. The participants will discuss fundamental questions that are related to the impact and sustainability of FLOSS ecosystems. More specifically, the meeting will have the following sessions:

1. How does an ecosystem form? How do different stakeholders work together to form a community that develop and maintain valuable and freely available software, and how does an ecosystem with millions of repositories and developers operate given the lack of centralized planning.
2. How is the ecosystem organized? How do the teams cooperate to resolve the issues (workflow), and what are the typical relationships between the code and the team.
3. How does the ecosystem evolve in response to the environment as technology and needs evolve over time?
4. What distinguishes ecosystems that sustain themselves from ecosystems that disappear? How can an ecosystem be sustained? Under what circumstances should it be sustained?
5. How do the newcomers learn the protocols and practices of an ecosystem? How would they sustain the ecosystem? What is the relationship between people sustainability and ecosystem sustainability?
6. What kinds of research methods might be utilized (e.g., what qualitative and quantitative methods)
to achieve research goals?
The expected outcome of the meeting is to achieved the following:
a Have provided an opportunity for the established and upcoming researchers and leading practitioners to exchange the ideas in the process of defining the agenda for FLOSS sustainability.
b Have framed the most critical research questions related to FLOSS ecosystem sustainability and impact.
c Determined the most relevant theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches to achieve research goals.
d Have made substantial progress towards identifying actions that would help sustain FLOSS ex-osystems and reduce risks to the critical FLOSS infrastructure.

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