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Standing on the shoulders of giants

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GDS team

We are shocked and saddened by the death of Aaron Swartz. Some of us 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. Many of us in and around GDS have waited years to apply the techniques and analysis that Chris pioneered at e-democracy charity mySociety, and we are fully aware that the opportunity that we have been given is in part as a result of their work outside of Government.

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.

>> About this post:

Many people contributed to this short post. We are in their debt. I wasn’t entirely sure that this was an appropriate post for our blog, so I’ve also published this at I understand this may seem the wrong place for these sentiments but we also believe in openness and we think that government departments should behave as though there are humans in them. This is from our human side. I apologise in advance if anyone thinks I made the wrong call. That decision was all mine.

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  1. Comment by Everything feels like failure in the middle. | posted on

    [...] is the saddest, but possibly best example of why. It talks about Aaron, but also about Chris (for overseas readers, Aaron was the American [...]

  2. Comment by Irene posted on

    I have lost a friend to suicide just a couple of weeks before Aaron. He too was very talented on his technological skills, passionate, charitable and young.
    This is a tough world for sensitive people.
    May their legacy never leave our memories.

  3. Comment by Sean Murphy posted on

    Inappropriate, wrong forum and wrong call, all of which make the eulogy even more brilliant. Excellently written and sincerely heartfelt. Blew me away (in an utterly positive sense) to see it here.

    Of all the obituaries written about him, I'd say Aaron Swartz would get by far the biggest kick out of this one. Well done again Mike Bracken.

  4. Comment by David Brunnen posted on

    Don't apologise Mike.

    Diffidence and deference may be deep-rooted in the Civil Service culture but together they dilute the impact of the digital economy.

    Aaron's passing reminds us that innovators may fight for perfection in design but they must also battle against the established order.

  5. Comment by owenblacker posted on

    I don't think you made the wrong call at all, Mike. I agree that it's important to remember that governments aren't composed of faceless mandarins but of humans, who are inspired by other humans and, as this post's title reminds us, we are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. That you should recognise that Chris and Aaron both had an impact on all of us, as citizens, that most of our fellow citizens will never know about is both appropriate and important. Thank you (all of you at GDS) for publishing this post. May we all continue to be inspired by the legacies of Aaron, Chris and all of us working in this area.

  6. Comment by Martin Cantor posted on

    Nothing inappropriate at all Mike. Entirely correct to do it on both human and professional levels. And, may I say, a finely judged tribute.

  7. Comment by Chris Kendall posted on

    Thank you Mike for the post.
    I think this is exactly the place for it to be published.
    I often feel that in the process of developing Government services, intimacy and personality are put aside in order to be seen to maintain clarity of purpose and professionalism.
    Sharing thoughts on matters such as this reminds us that we are human and encourages us to think of our audience as people first and 'Users' second.

  8. Comment by bushofgoats posted on

    No, definitely the right place. This is relevant to both your immediate audience and a wider coalition. Digital is proving what was previously rhetorical; that the personal is politic.

  9. Comment by William Perrin posted on

    Mike it's great to have some humanity. As a civil servant for many years I despaired at the seeming professional necessity of emotionless correspondence, when do often some simple compassion would have made things much easier.

    Of course emotionally-detached analysis and advice is vital, as it is in any profession, but this doesn't mean that in public service one should ALWAYS be so detached. But it has to be finely judges and balanced. The ruthlessness of the commentariat will exploit simple human expression in public service if it suits a particular purpose - either to amuse an audience to make a political point.

  10. Comment by Andy Mabbett posted on

    No, good call. Thank you.

  11. Comment by Andy Paddock posted on

    Reblogged this on Andy Paddock and commented:
    GDS continues to show the way, showing true compassion and giving credit are not things you would normally associate with any government department/web site. I applaud you and think anyone who thinks this is not the right place for this kind of post should get back into their stuffy tight lipped box.

  12. Comment by Andy Paddock posted on

    GDS continues to show the way, showing true compassion and giving credit are not things you would normally associate with any government department/web site. I applaud you and think anyone who thinks this is not the right place for this kind of post should get back into their stuffy tight lipped box.

  13. Comment by Patrick Torsney posted on

    It's the right place. It was the right decision.

  14. Comment by James Cronin posted on

    Entirely the right sentiment.

    Entirely the right call.

  15. Comment by Martin Stewart-Weeks posted on

    No apology needed. Perhaps slightly concerning you felt you needed to ask. And the post was both timely, insightful and inspiring. Opening government, properly but purposefully, turns out to be a much tougher task than one might imagine. More power to your digital elbow

  16. Comment by williamheath posted on

    Correct call Mike. Like anything else government and public services are worth not much if people working there lose their compassion. I'm still getting to understand Chris's legacy. I never met Aaron. But the community sense of loss is palpable, and the resolve to do something worthwhile to make sense of it all is moving. And heigh ho. Back to the day job #delivery