The Politics of Open Infrastructures

Session 2a
Tuesday, 28 November, 2023
11:00-12:30 Sitzungssaal

In her 1999 STS ethnographic studies, Susan Leigh Star insightfully argued that infrastructures are not only relational and ecological but also material constructs made by humans, revealing their complexity only when they fail. This highlights the importance of understanding their scalability and maintenance (Star 1999, p. 382). To grasp the interplay between infrastructure and human organisation, and the values and ethics embedded within, new methods and policies are essential (Winner 1980, Star 1999, p. 379). Amid the heightened focus on activism and political organising in and around academia, our panel, “The Politics of Open Infrastructures,” seeks to discuss research findings and own experiences with the open movement around infrastructures. 

For this session we utilize a broad concept of openness, ranging from the commoning of physical transport or telecom infrastructures, to digital platforms and software with the emphasis of managing resources collectively by a community through principles of shared access and mutual benefit. “Open Infrastructures” facilitate connection, communication, collaboration and knowledge production often based on open and reusable tools and community ownership. This could be for example open source software, open data, metadata, metrics, licences, hardware and interfaces, such as open APIs. Additionally, these infrastructures adhere to open standards, which allows interoperability and simplifies the process of migrating from one system to another and helps avoid lock-in effects. The governance of Open Infrastructures is another key aspect, providing communities with a clear right to participate in decision-making and governance processes (Mayer et al. 2020). 

The open movement, at its core, challenges traditional boundaries and power constellations from common goods to knowledge production, therefore, the advocacy for open infrastructures pushes for transparent, collaborative, inclusive, and equitable approaches in the development and implementation of infrastructures. Within the regulatory frameworks of Europe’s emphasis on “digital sovereignty,” open digital infrastructures, especially open source, are garnering significant political interest. However, openness faces several challenges, including the commercial capture of open technologies and issues related to community governance and the distribution of responsibilities. So, how can open infrastructures contribute towards liveable futures within the political, technological and cultural fabrics of everyday society?

Our focus in this session will be on crucial questions that align closely with the overarching theme of the conference. The short lightning talks will focus on

  1. The driving forces behind the opening of infrastructure projects, and the political characteristics of these projects.
  2. The personal role and agenda in the development of these projects.

These foci aim to unravel the complexities and political nuances of open infrastructure projects, and the critical roles researchers and activists play in shaping these initiatives. 

The session will consist of at least two ‘tour the table’ rounds, followed by an open and enriching discussion. To capture the essence of our dialogue and ensure its availability for future reflection and reference, we will be maintaining a collaborative document throughout the session.


Community Transport Infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada
Philipp Budka

Infrastructures are at the core of many social transformations, sociopolitical developments, and creative processes of innovation. They have become key indicators and signs of economic development, technological advancement, and modernization. Particularly in small and remote communities, infrastructures are often associated with economic growth, socio-economic well-being, and therefore communal sustainability. This paper looks into the role and meaning of transport infrastructures in sustaining remote communities in Northern Manitoba, Canada. In doing so it focuses in particular on questions of infrastructural ownership and control. As of 2021, and for the first time in history, key transport infrastructures –the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port ofChurchill –are owned by a consortium of 41 northern communities. The paper draws on ethnographic data that have been collected in the region for the ERC project InfraNorth. As the case of transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba shows, social relationships and organizational partnerships are key for planning, developing, building, continuing, and maintaining infrastructures. Infrastructure should therefore be conceptualized as more than just an operational system of technological objects.

Philipp Budka is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna. He has been researching media, technologies, and infrastructures in the Americas and Europe. Currently, he is exploring transport infrastructures in northern Canada for the ERC project “InfraNorth”. Philipp is the co-editor of Theorising Media and Conflict (Berghahn, 2020) and Ritualisierung – Mediatisierung – Performance (Vienna University Press, 2019) and has published widely in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. He is currently working on a monograph about the history of an Indigenous internet platform and a book on transport infrastructures in northern Manitoba.


The challenge of “commoning” smart city infrastructures: Thinking about data integration platforms
Rafaela Cavalcanti de Alcântara

The United Nations report that “[p]eople-centered smart cities leverage data, technology and services for common good, delivering inclusive and sustainable cities” (United Nations, n.d.). Related to it, UN-Habitat evokes promoting open city data as a path to the deployment of data for the public good, claiming, as outcomes of such measures, citizen empowerment, better data-driven decision-making in cities, in addition to an increased citizen engagement in policy-making (UN-Habitat & Nesta, n.d.). Following this approach to the deployment of new technological tools and data generation in the cities, different agendas have been arising, such as “the right to the digital city”, “the right to the smart city”, and “the right to the datafied city” (Bria & Morozov, 2018; Cardullo et al., 2019).The ideas of commons and common data infrastructures are often emphasized when elaborating on possible alternatives to the current widespread notions of the so-called smart cities. Alternative data ownership regimes, open source, open standards, control digital platforms, development of cooperative models of service provision, and digital sovereignty are often mentioned as ways to promote a framework that thinks digital cities beyond neoliberal guidelines (Bria & Morozov, 2018; De Lange, 2019).As part of the AUTO-WELF project, Lisbon’s Urban Intelligence and Management Center has been explored as a case study to understand data analysis and automation deployment to promote welfare. Thus, combined with document analysis, narratives on such a city project obtained through interviews with the staff involved in its operations will help to reflect on materializations and expectations concerning open data infrastructures in the city, mapping practices in this regard. Considering decommodification as a potential pillar of the data welfare state (Andreassen et al., 2021), such an example will also help to look into the tensions between taking city data either as a commodity or a common good.

Rafaela Cavalcanti de Alcântara is a researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA/ÖAW) since January 2023. She holds a Master’s Degree in Human Rights (UFPB, Brazil) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Law (UFPE, Brazil). Rafaela is currently a PhD student at the Department of Science and Technology Studies of the University of Vienna, and is especially interested in gender, urban technologies, data extractivism, welfare, and the right to the city. 


Automating Welfare: How to open up, re-imagine, and rebuild data infrastructures for the public good 
Astrid Mager

 (Semi-)Automated decision-making (ADM) systems are on the rise in public sectors including employment, public health, and education. These systems are often driven by values of efficiency, effectivity, or social fraud detection and tend to underestimate the social implications they cause in the respective institutions, but also in society at large (Allhutter et al. 2020, Sztandar-Sztanderska and Zielenska 2022, Lomborg et al. 2023, Geiger 2023). At the same time, alternative imaginaries have started to take shape in the European context trying to re-imagine and rebuild digital technology and data infrastructures for the public good (Mansell 2012, Lehtiniemi and Ruckenstein, 2019, Kazansky and Milan 2021, Mager 2023, Macgilchrist et al. 2023). European values such as data protection, transparency, and digital sovereignty are often mobilized to promote large-scale infrastructures in the areas of research (Mahfoud 2021, Mobach and Felt2022), cloud computing (Baur2023), and web search (Mager 2023). Against this background, the project Automating Welfare (FWF I 6075) examines the implications of datafication and automatization for the welfare and flourishing of European citizens in eight European countries using a case-study approach and a mix of different methods (data journeys, interviews, short-term ethnographies, citizen workshops). In Austria, one of the case studies is exploring the use (and reuse) of health insurance data for fraud detection, but in tandem tries to envision potential future applications oriented towards the public good such as risk prevention or public health initiatives. Another case study is focusing on the Open Commons Linz initiative, which is trying to open up data (and infrastructures) to citizens for communal welfare and educational purposes -fieldwork of both case studies has just been started, first insights will be shared at the conference. How to re-imagine and rebuild data infrastructures for the public good and how to work towards more open, just, and citizen-oriented techno-futures will be discussed in the presentation. Moreover, the role of the researcher in joint activities of envisioning (and encoding) alternative techno-futures will be reflected.

Astrid MAGER is Senior Academy Scientist at the Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, and Lecturer at the STS Department, University of Vienna. Her long-standing research on search engines/ algorithmic systems in socio-political contexts has been widely published. Recent publications include “European Search? How to counter-imagine and counteract hegemonic search with European search engine projects”, Big Data & Society (2023), “Advancing search engine studies: The evolution of Google critique and intervention”, Big Data & Society (2023, together with OC Norocel & R Rogers), and “Algorithmic Profiling of Job Seekers in Austria: How Austerity Politics Are Made Effective”, Frontiers in Big Data (2020, together with D. Allhutter, F. Cech, F. Fischer, & G. Grill). Astrid is currently finalizing her habilitation “Algorithmic Imaginaries. Visions and values in the shaping of search engines”, funded by the Austrian Science Fund (grant no V511-G29).


Re-Opening Artificial Intelligence
Katja Mayer

 This presentation explores the nuanced interpretations of the terms ‘open’, ‘open source’, and ‘open science’ within the realm of AI infrastructures, including machine learning models and platforms for data and code sharing. It outlines the ambiguous and varied use of ‘openness’ and the values and practices it embodies. The spectrum of openness ranges from granting access to code and data, ensuring explainability and reusability, to transparency regarding the resources utilized in creating and operating these infrastructures. Just recently, in this context and at the face of newAI regulations, big tech companies were accused of “open-washing”, projecting a facade of commitment to open-source and open science principles, and leveraging the positive connotations associated with openness for marketing their offerings, without genuinely aligning with the core principles of transparency or reusability. Conversely, recent years have witnessed a surge in innovative approaches that genuinely address critiques of mainstream AI. These alternatives emphasize unbiased training data, reduced resource consumption for environmental sustainability, and duly recognizing the labor in training and moderating systems like chatbots. The presentation culminates in a discussion on the significance and effectiveness of advocating for algorithmic justice and the role of open activism in this dynamic global landscape. 

Katja Mayer has a background in sociology and IT. She currently is Elise Richter Fellow at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University of Vienna. Her work explores the powerful relationships of social science and society, with a particular emphasis on the politics of open science and open data. Before that she was visiting scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, held the role of research advisor to the president of the European Research Council, and served as a postdoc at TUM’s Computational Social Sciences. She co-chaired the working group for a national strategy on Open Science at OANA, and was involved in several policy advice activities from open access to open science diplomacy. 


Opening telecommunications to critical insights and public engagement
Maxigas, Critical Infrastructure Lab

I focus on opening up programmable infrastructures to critical insights, transposing digital methods from platforms to infrastructures, the case in point being the next generation 5G mobile phone networks. In comparison with the information infrastructure of the Internet, telecommunications infrastructures are notoriously inaccessible. Internet Infrastructures benefit from open standards, elegant protocols, revolutionary imaginar-ies, public debates and ample civil society engagement. In contrast, telecommunications infrastructures are rendered inaccessible by standards processes conducted by industrial consortia, over-engineered protocol stacks, bland visions, regulatory capture, and the absence of digital rights activists. The convergence of Internet with telecommunica-tions networks renders this situation increasingly problematic, because as computers and networks merge in programmable infrastructures, the future of communication and control will be determined by telecom companies without public debate or civil societyparticipation.In order to address such a research problem and provide an adequate response to the his-torical moment, I propose, promote and develop the “People’s 5G Laboratory”, a rebuilt mobile phone network for parallel operation and public experiments. The purpose of the research infrastructure is to open telecommunications to critical insights and public engagement through the innovative methodology of “dissection”. Dissection refers to an analytical but experimental approach to gaining a materialist understanding of the medium in which cultures grow. While dissection has been practiced during the DutchGolden Age as a means to advance science, in particular anatomy, and thus medicine, it has also been instrumental in transforming the societal norms and values, promoting en-lightenment ideologies through public experiments and debatable spectacles. By taking a similar approach to telecommunications standards, implementations and deployments,the Critical Infrastructure Lab aims to inject a critique of cybernetics into contemporary debates on emerging technologies of media and culture.

Maxigas is co-principal investigator of the critical infrastructure lab and Assistant Professor Computational Methods for Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University.  He studies programmable infrastructures such as 5G  telecommunication networks and generative protocols for the smart city.  His ongoing interest in hacker cultures is documented in a co-authored monograph with MIT Press entitled Resistance to the Current: the Dialectics of Hacking (2022).  Recent work focuses on “infrastructural ideologies” developed at the  intersection of media studies with Science and Technology Studies. 


Designing an Ethical Framework for an Open Web Search Infrastructure
Renée Ridgway, Alexander Nussbaumer

Alternative and open web search infrastructures are ‘counter-imaginaries’ (Mager 2023), yet what is often missing are the ethical values contained within them. This presentation focuses on designing and implementing an ethical framework for a novel, open European infrastructure (index) in web search that allows downloading of index partitions that can be used for specific purpose search applications and data products, including state of the art AI applications (chatbots, knowledge graphs) that deliver (alternative) search results. The technical infrastructure is being developed by a consortium of 14 research partners and computer centres from seven European countries funded by the European Commission ( A Working Group Ethics, together with members of the research project, simultaneously monitors the research and development of the technical side of the index from an ethical perspective, including its protocols, standards and software as well as data collection and storage, data organization, data analysis and search services. It also focuses on political concerns and social issues, alongwith organising workshops to create public awareness. Besides contributing to the STS imagined worlds discourse (Jasanoff 2020), the group will deliver an ethical framework, or a ‘values compass’ for open internet search. This framework consists of a systematic approach to identify ethical issues, perform ethical checks, and to integrate ethical guidelines in the development process.   

Alexander Nussbaumer is a postdoctoral researcher at Graz University of Technology, Austria. He mainly works on European and national research projects with a focus on the intersection between computer science, cognitive psychology, and the societal impact of technology. In particular, his research interests include digital learning environments, digital literacy, decision support, human-computer interfaces, user-centred evaluation, and ethics-by-design approaches.

Renée Ridgway is a post-doctoral researcher in the SHAPE (Shaping Digital Citizenship) centre, department of Digital Design and Information Studies, Aarhus University, DK. Recent peer-reviewed publications include Deleterious consequences- How Google’s original sociotechnical affordances ultimately shaped us(ers) in the era of surveillance capitalism for the special issue ‘The State of Google Critique and Intervention’ in Big Data & Society (2023). Presently she addresses the problematics and politics of Google search, the ethical aspects of its alternatives (a.o. a forthcoming European public index as infrastructure) and the so-called future of search (chatbots).



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