Abandoned Tools: The Impact of Projects Left Behind

When we talk about reliable digital tools for communication and security one essential element is that they be regularly updated. It is not enough that an app or a program is created and works, for long-term sustainability and safety that app needs to be updated, to adjust to any newfound errors or security risks. Unfortunately, there are few guarantees when it comes to whether or not an app will be maintained over the long-term, especially if the developers of the app change priorities, projects, or simply lose the funding that they once had.

The aforementioned risk is well known among developers and users who have ever found that an app they used to count on has become unstable or unusable. In some cases, the user may actually not notice a security flaw that has arisen, all the while their data has been compromised or they are unknowingly placed in harm's way. "It is like trying to stay afloat in quicksand...," explains Harlo Holmes, director of Digital Security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, "not a lot of people appreciate that [software updates] because they never see the work going on in the background."

While it is good for users to understand the risk of abandoned apps, organizations or funders of projects also play an influential role in the struggle to keep technology updated. Funding for security and documentation does not always include the long-term goal of maintaining the code, and more frequently it is focused on short term goals and successes that can be clearly understood by stakeholders. Furthermore, in the words of James Vasile of Open Tech Strategies, "In the ideal world folks would build the tech in their local communities... and therefore it would be much more suited to their needs and effective at supporting their work." Vasile points out that in reality, there is a disconnect; tools for documentation and security are often built far from the communities where they end up being implemented. Likewise, as decisions are made to discontinue or shift funding/focus, the user who is dependent on an application is not involved in the decision and may not be aware of the change until it is too late. What's the answer to this complex relationship? A pair of key concepts emerge: 1. Users that depend on digital tools for their work and their safety must stay flexible and move on with some regularity from tools that may no longer be reliable or relevant. 2. Institutions and developers alike should do a better job or either engaging communities in need or fully involving them as partners in the decision-making process that involves essential tools for documentation. The overall goal is to stop the longstanding disconnect between the people on the ground and those with organizational objectives and funding.