Remembering Aaron Swartz

“One of the things the Web teaches us is that everything is connected (hyperlinks) and we all should work together (standards). Too often school teaches us that everything is separate (many different ‘subjects’) and that we should all work alone.” –Aaron Swartz, April 2001.

So Aaron is gone. We were friends a decade ago, and drifted out of touch; I thought we’d cross paths again, but, well, no.

Update: MIT’s report is published.

 I’ll remember him always as the bright kid who showed up in the early data sharing Web communities around RSS, FOAF and W3C’s RDF, a dozen years ago:

"Hello everyone, I'm Aaron. I'm not _that_ much of a coder, (and I don't know
much Perl) but I do think what you're doing is pretty cool, so I thought I'd
hang out here and follow along (and probably pester a bit)."

Aaron was from the beginning a powerful combination of smart, creative, collaborative and idealistic, and was drawn to groups of developers and activists who shared his passion for what the Web could become. He joined and helped the RSS 1.0 and W3C RDF groups, and more often than not the difference in years didn’t make a difference. I’ve seen far more childishness from adults in the standards scene, than I ever saw from young Aaron. TimBL has it right; “we have lost one of our own”. He was something special that ‘child genius’ doesn’t come close to capturing. Aaron was a regular in the early ’24×7 hack-and-chat’ RDF IRC scene, and it’s fitting that the first lines logged in that group’s archives are from him.

I can’t help but picture an alternate and fairer universe in which Aaron made it through and got to be the cranky old geezer at conferences in the distant shiny future. He’d have made a great William Loughborough; a mutual friend and collaborator with whom he shared a tireless impatience at the pace of progress, the need to ask ‘when?’, to always Demand Progress.

I’ve been reading old IRC chat logs from 2001. Within months of his ‘I’m not _that_ much of a coder’ Aaron was writing Python code for accessing experimental RDF query services (and teaching me how to do it, disclaiming credit, ‘However you like is fine… I don’t really care.’). He was writing rules in TimBL’s experimental logic language N3, applying this to modelling corporate ownership structures rather than as an academic exercise, and as ever sharing what he knew by writing about his work in the Web. Reading some old chats, we talked about the difficulties of distributed collaboration, debate and disagreement, personalities and their clashes, working groups, and the Web.

I thought about sharing some of that, but I’d rather just share him as I choose to remember him:

22:16:58 <AaronSw> LOL

Visual SPARQL query tools

Quick links – thinking about tools that allow graphical SPARQL query authoring…

OpenLink Virtuoso: InteractiveSparqlQueryBuilder (in HTML/CSS/.js). Pictured below; extensive documentation and screenshots linked from their main page.

…an ancestor of which was Damian Steer’s RDFAuthor tool for MacOSX, which could generate Squish (a SPARQL precursor) and query services over the ‘array of hashtables’ SOAP-for-rdf-query non spec that Libby Miller and I had implementations of. From the RDFAuthor tutorial:

The old Maryland BINPIQ SHOE knowledgebase query applet is the grandaddy of them all. Sadly I don’t have any screenshots and the applet itself seems to be coderotted. [...] Ah, but here I find an email I wrote about it 8 years ago(!), which has screenshots:

SemanticSoft from Moldova also have some visual SPARQL UI:

No real conclusion here. I just found myself looking around some of these links, and thought I’d share them. I’m sure there’s a lot more related work out there (eg. NIGHTLIGHT from folk at Southampton Uni), and that the rise of fancy HTML-based UIs and JSON for data access makes for an ever-more interesting environment for zero-install graphical query tools.

One thing I remember about the old Maryland applets: as their representational language became more expressive (moving from binary to n-ary), the graphical query UI became somewhat less intuitive. Now since SPARQL itself adds some concepts not in the underlying target language (ie. RDF doesn’t have named graphs, optionals etc), the ability to make a graphical query UI that exploits the “it’s just an RDF graph with bits labelled as missing” (per Guha’s original proposal) perhaps gets a bit strained. In particular, how might named graphs best be represented in visual editors?