It is with great sadness that I must report the death of Chris Lightfoot, mySociety’s first developer and a good friend to all of us. He was found by friends at his flat on February 11th. The main announcement can be read in this post on his blog.
Chris was perhaps the pre-eminent example so far of what polymath means in the Internet age. His contributions to the world are more than just a formidable legacy of computer code of the very highest quality, for mySociety and many others. They also include substantial contributions to applied statistics, geographic information systems, economics and a range of public policy issues from identity cards to speed cameras.
Everything Chris did in these fields combined an incredulity-inducing array of technical and analytical skills with a wickedly funny, savage turn of phrase. To understand what a remarkable intellectual outlier he was, simply sift through his blog and marvel at the quantity of primary research and original coding that went into it. Documenting and exploring his work would provide material for many years of research, and yet all this was accomplished by the age of 28.
Within mySociety he was involved right from the start through the development of WriteToThem, HearFromYourMP and PledgeBank, building some amazing underpinning geographic and political web services like Gaze, MaPit and DaDem. These components make all our sites work and make a raft other tools and sites possible in the future.
For the last three or four months he was working at another employer, Media Molecule four days a week, but still helped the full time staff with the petitions work. The last major thing he built for us was the system that serves up the maps for Neighbourhood Fix-It, a site which was only just soft launched before he died, but of which he was apparently fond for its WriteToThem-like habit of getting simple things done that mattered to normal people.
Building mySociety’s major sites involved mighty team efforts, something which can obscure even huge invididual talent. So perhaps the sort of work for which Chris will be be most remembered is his wonderfully individualistic, virtuoso forays into scholastic areas in which he had no formal training. He wandered into differing disciplines, made a mark, and wandered on again like a giant that had no idea he’d just trodden on a village. The political survey work he did both hugely illuminates our understanding of our own political world, whilst raising the question “how come none of the professional political analysts thought of this?” And his travel-time maps should make everyone in government wonder if they’re sitting on information which could be reused to such amazing, potentially life changing effect.
Chris’ intellect and appetite for knowledge was surpassed by only one aspect of his character: his integrity. If you’ve ever wondered why WriteToThem goes to such lengths to protect users’ data it is largely because of his rock solid belief in the dignity and social indispensibility of privacy. Chris was an energetic campaigner in this field, notably for No2ID, who have posted a tribute.
It doesn’t stretch the truth an inch to say that with his death the whole of the UK’s citizenry, not just his family, friends and colleagues, will be worse off. Rest in peace, Chris.