Mike Bracken

Standing on the shoulders of giants

by Mike Bracken. Average Reading Time: about 2 minutes.

We are all shocked and saddened by the death of Aaron Swartz. Some of my colleagues at GDS were fortunate to have met him; others were involved in the many projects he worked on; all of us are in some way indebted to his legacy. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee said, ‘we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.’

Here in the UK, it inevitably brings back the pain six years ago of losing Chris Lightfoot, another brilliant and passionate polymath whose capabilities and achievements extended far beyond his years. Tom Loosemore, Etienne Pollard and I held a number of roles in e-democracy charity mySociety, and saw at first hand how Chris drove its thinking to challenge Government and create services which have paved the way for our current attempts. Many of us in and around GDS have waited years to apply in Government the techniques and analysis that Chris and his colleagues pioneered outside of Government, and we are fully aware that the opportunity that we have been given is in part as a result of their work.

Aaron and Chris were remarkable individuals, inspired and inspiring, cut from the same rare cloth. We should also mourn as citizens, because Aaron and Chris embodied an unbridled eagerness to apply the toolkit of the internet age in the service of civil society. In the words of our friend Tom Steinberg, head of mySociety, Chris ‘did much more than simply master varying disciplines: he saw and drew connections between fields… and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.’

Underpinning that desire to connect was a belief that the internet could and should be used in specific, concrete ways to empower the public and make government more responsive and accountable:

“The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.”

Aaron Swartz was one of those few.

Much of the work we do, and the way we do it, drew inspiration from the work of Aaron and Chris. The Open Government Licence for instance (which simplifies access and sharing of public data) would not exist without the pioneering work that Aaron helped push forward at Creative Commons. Meanwhile Chris Lightfoot developed the core of the first No10 e-petitions service, the inspiration for the current e-petitions service.

So we should mourn as professionals, because Aaron and Chris spent their lives asking hard questions of governments and technology: questions, driven and backed by data, that deserved answers. The health and relevance of governments depends upon a willingness to listen carefully to voices like theirs and to ask equally hard questions of ourselves.

In the UK, boundaries are being redrawn; the UK Civil Service is beginning to open its doors to those who once pushed from the outside. Progress is being made but still, more than anyone, more than ever, Governments need Chris and Aaron and their like, and when they pass it is right we should mourn their loss.