Five years ago, on February 11, my friend Chris Lightfoot killed himself and we lost one of the most significant thinkers about how we realise the vision of an open society in a networked world that we have ever had – and one of the most accomplished doers, too, because Chris was a modern public intellectual, committed to ‘rough consensus and running code’ as well as erudite arguments with anyone who stood in his path.
Tom Steinberg has written a marvellously insightful analysis of why Chris mattered, and it goes into some detail about his achievements, especially within the context of MySociety. You can read it here:
After Chris died I wrote his obituary for The Times. It has now gone behind the paywall, so I’m reposting a version of it here in the interests of history and to ensure that we all remember Chris and appreciate his enormous contribution to our world. It’s written in Times style – the impersonal viewpoint that makes even the most NPOV Wikipedia article come over as if it comes from the keyboard of a zealot. The printed version had been subbed and will differ, but as far as I’m aware all the facts are correct.
Polymath, programmer and campaigner whose work promoted the civic and community use of the computers and internet.
Although it is now seen as a truism that the way we live has been radically altered by the widespread availability of computers and easy access to the internet, the work of Chris Lightfoot shows clearly just how substantial those changes have been.
The websites he worked on for the social charity mySociety have given constituents clear and comprehensive information about what their elected representatives are up to and an easy way to get in touch with them, while his efforts on behalf of no2id, the group campaigning against the introduction of identity cards, ensured that the controversial policy remained in the public eye.
Christopher Lightfoot was born in Dulwich on August 4th 1978, the second child of Robert Lightfoot, a patent agent, and Prue, a journalist.
Known throughout his life as ‘Oggie’ after his father coined the name early in his childhood, Lightfoot was introduced to computers when his parents bought a BBC Model ‘B’ microcomputer and his sister, Steph, showed him how to write programs for it.
Computers were never his only interest, and he was always concerned with the practical, figuring out how things work and spending family holidays in Wales building dams on the beach. He was also a compulsive reader with wide-ranging tastes, and in his childhood liked to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
After attending Dulwich College Preparatory school from 1983 until 1989 he won a scholarship to Westminster School and boarded there until 1996, leaving with six A levels at grade A. In his final year he was a member of the Westminster team in the British Informatics Olympiad, the computing competition for schools, and he also edited the school science magazine.
Lightfoot arrived at Clare College, Cambridge in October 1996 for the beginning of his undergraduate studies, planning to focus on physics within the Natural Sciences tripos. In his time at Clare he was a confident, outgoing and friendly member of the college, noted for his acerbic sense of humour and unwillingness to suffer fools or foolishness, as well as the messiness of his rooms.
In common with other exceptional students he completed a four-year masters degree, graduating in 2000 with a Masters in Science. Moving into a shared house in Cambridge with some fellow graduates he took a job working for Transversal, a Cambridge-based company providing knowledge management systems. However during the summer of 2000 he was offered a doctoral place in the department of Earth Sciences and in the autumn he began work with Professor Dan McKenzie studying the processes involved in melt extraction from the earth’s mantle.
Like many polymaths Lightfoot found it impossible to focus all of his attention on one activity, and although he worked hard on his PhD, making field trips to Arran, Iceland and Donegal, he was also involved in many other projects, some grander than others.
For example, having discovered that there was no suitable internet hosting company that met their stringent standards, Lightfoot and his housemates took what seemed to them to be the obvious step and set up their own, Mythic Beasts, in August 2000.
His commitment to civic life and the quality of public debate continued to drive him, and he published a number of acerbic papers online on diverse issues including the efficacy of speed cameras and the need for freedom of information. When aspects of modern life annoyed him, as they often did, he would write carefully-judged letters to the offending parties, publishing the dialogue on his website for the entertainment of his large circle of online friends.
He also used his geographical interests and knowledge to create a number of valuable resources, most notably a travel map which took publicly available information on public transport links to create a colour-coded map showing travel time to a particular destination.
The map, which required sophisticated data analysis, complex maths, data visualisation and an ability to think laterally about how to reuse available data sources, was typical of his creativity and inventiveness.
His parents were involved with a family business in South Africa, and in 2002 his father died while on a trip there.
In March 2003 Lightfoot met Tom Steinberg at a punt picnic in Cambridge. Steinberg was setting up the charity mySociety which would develop websites that provided direct benefits to people in their communities and looking for funding and programmers, and Lightfoot, along with his friend Francis Irving, became the core of the programming team.
Although he talked sometimes of moving to London and working for a financial services company or an oil company he remained in Cambridge, working on a wide range of projects for mySociety and others from his home in Cambridge and enjoying life as a member of a close-knit community of friends. He also acknowledged that he would not be completing his doctorate.
Lightfoot worked on many mySociety websites including WriteToThem, HearFromYourMP and PledgeBank, as well as the Downing Street e-Petitions site, mySociety’s most prominent project. His core philosophy remained getting simple things done that mattered to normal people, and he recently developed the mapping system for NeighbourhoodFixIt, a new site that makes it easy to request repairs from local authorities.
While most of his effort went into mySociety he continued to manage Mythic Beasts and was also systems administrator for no2id, campaigning against the introduction of identity cards in the UK. He also worked on personal projects including the online estimation quiz and a successful online political survey, earning the epithet ‘a one-man think tank’ from mySociety’s Tom Steinberg.
At the end of 2006 Lightfoot scaled down his formal involvement in mySociety and started working for a games developer, Media Molecule. He remained active with no2id and mySociety and as one of the administrators of Mythic Beasts, but on February 11th he was found dead in his room in Cambridge, having electrocuted himself.
Subject to depression throughout his adult life, he had been in good spirits over supper with friends the night before, and was answering emails from Mythic Beasts customers in the early hours of the day he died.
He is survived by his mother, Prue and sister, Steph.
Christopher ‘Oggie’ Lightfoot, programmer and online campaigner, was born in Dulwich on August 4th 1978. He died in Cambridge on February 11th 2007.