I work at the moment for The Money Advice Service. It's a worthy enterprise, and we're trying to bring the whole thing in to the 21st century - it's fun, and it's hard, and if we get it right, the people who really need it will get a lot of help. Which has to be a Yay.
Alot of the folk who work there don't come from a digital background. Those who do are immeasurably grateful that the brilliant enterprise that is GDS exists at the same time, as an agent for change because we get to point a big finger at the government (the government! My God! How did that ever happen :) and say look! If we emulate these people then we're doing ok, and it's all official n'stuff, so it must be good.
So I thought I'd write them a little note about why the ongoing discussion with regard to the appalling tragedy of the death of Aaron Swartz is important. Why what he was part of is important, putting it in the context of the UK. I personalised it, so that it didn't feel remote, and so there are aspects of it that may look like I'm aggrandizing a little. Apologies if that's the case. I was so proud to be part of things when I was younger and part of me is terribly frustrated that I'm not really now, apart from paying my ORG subs and writing to my MP when necessary. I hope I can gradually change the emphasis back, but I admit, it is more difficult to be directly involved if you're not a coder. What I mostly do right now is offer my support, and love, where it's needed.
Anyway. Got to get back to work, so I'm just putting it up here, in order to specifically award a hugely respectful round of applause to Mike Bracken. It's so important, at a time like this, that we stand up and be counted in whatever way we can. He has just done so in a way that I hope he will remember, and be as proud of personally as we are of him. (We were anyway, tbh)
It's not just about Mike though, it's about everyone, everywhere who is trying to change things. Do not ever do what Aaron did. People love you, and honour you, and will always be there for you. I will! Mail me! If I don't know you then I want to :)
...and remember that having a reason to change things, and make things better for everyone, gives you a superpower.
Something to read when you’ve got a mo, over a cup of tea.
Something rather remarkable was published in the GDS blog last night. Several friends who are part of the movement to free information, open up govt and use the internet for the ‘power of good’ knew Aaron Swartz, whose name you may have read in the news in the last week, very well. His death is not only a tragedy for his family and friends, who loved him dearly, but is also a horribly visible reminder that the kind of work that geeks have been doing, ripping away the walls of misguided privacy around much tax paid information is very close to the edge of legal. Indeed, many years ago, I was to be found typing up a list of MP’s fax numbers against a tidied list of their names to in some small way help www.faxyourmp.com in to the world – I’m 100% sure that someone, somewhere would have legally objected to that on privacy grounds! But without those baby steps, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Without Faxyourmp, MySociety would not exist, and GDS would not currently be revolutionising govt online services.
But behind Faxyourmp was something called “Stand”, which found a bunch of fighty nerds and geeks standing together to do everything possible to stop the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (we didn’t manage it but at least we had a go, and realised in the process that we had given ourselves permission to ‘Do Something’ when we needed to). (Editor's note: this is not, by the way, suggesting that all of the same people were somehow involved all the way along the line. GDS is not, definitely not, filled with a bunch of 'fighty nerds'.)
In recent years, frankly I haven’t contributed much at all to changing things – family and work has got in the way but those involved in particular with MySociety and ORG are continuing to do hugely important work. And any one of them could have been Aaron Swartz, facing years in the nick for liberating information, which has really hit home to all of us. In trying to modernise what is private, what is public and trying to empower everyone in the process, but the legal system has yet to really grasp these concepts, and has the possibility of lumping in people like Aaron with edjits who want to hack systems for blackmail and personal gain.
There is also something important here about the risk that fundamentally idealistic people have in being crunched up against the hard edge of the law. Where pragmatic people compromise, people like Aaron Swartz found the idea of plea bargaining an obscenity, and his personal integrity made it difficult for him to plead guilty to a ‘crime’ which was frankly, a nonsense.
Anyway. Mike Bracken and some other friends collaborated on a piece commemorating the idealism and hard work of Aaron, and also remembering another wonderful guy called Chris Lightfoot, who for reasons only known to him, killed himself several years ago now but whose creative understanding of the power of free data helped lead MySociety and therefore by extension, GDS, to where they are now.
Whilst all this may seem a bit ‘geek/nerd/so what’, the power of what people are doing for the public good here is extraordinary – and that same energy is being spread worldwide, helping in communities where access to information and personal independence and empowerment is even more restricted. Mike is so right to want to celebrate this, and mourn, publicly. So the message here is be the best person you can be – and that includes being a high profile representative of digital govt, publishing something like this: