Notes: The human infrastructure of cyberinfrastructure

Lee, C.P., Dourish, P., & Mark, G. (2006). The human infrastructure of cyberinfrastructure. Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work. pp. 483-492

Despite their rapid proliferation, there has been little examination of the coordination and social practices of cyberinfrastructure projects. We use the notion of “human infrastructure” to explore how human and organizational arrangements share properties with technological infrastructures. We conducted an 18-month ethnographic study of a large-scale distributed biomedical cyberinfrastructure project and discovered that human infrastructure is shaped by a combination of both new and traditional team and organizational structures. Our data calls into question a focus on distributed teams as the means for accomplishing distributed work and we argue for using human infrastructure as an alternative perspective for understanding how distributed collaboration is accomplished in big science.

An infrastructure is an underlying framework that enables a group, organization, or society to function in certain ways, such as the series of pipes, drains, and water sources that comprise a water system. However, our use of the term “infrastructure” is intended to suggest more than this; We want to draw attention to the usefulness of comparing the ways in which human and organizational arrangements share a range of significant properties with technological infrastructures.

Increasingly, traditional organizational structures are being replaced by networks of people formed to work on particular projects. However, personal networks often remain after the project is finished, as people are bound together based on their common work experience. These networks aid organizational members in local coordination. Nardi et al.1 found that these networks are formed deliberately and consist of two properties: emergence, formed to accomplish particular tasks, and history, which enables their rapid formation. These networks, they note, can exist alongside traditional teams.

  1. Nardi, B., Whittaker, S., Schwarz, H. 2002. NetWORKers and their Activity in Intensional Networks. CSCW Journal, 11, 205-242. []