In August, my Code for America Fellowship team and I were in Puerto Rico for two weeks. During the trip, I scheduled a meeting with our primary contact, the CIO of Puerto Rico, Giancarlo Gonzalez, and three representatives from the Treasury Department. We were discussing a collaboration between their agency and PrimerPeso, the app we were creating. I was hopeful and optimistic about the agenda of the meeting.
However, before we started the meeting I was struck by a small conversational exchange. “Hey, why are you wearing that pin?” asked a representative of the Treasury while looking at Giancarlo’s lapel.
The pin represented the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA).
With a cool poker face he replied: “I am working with PRASA on a project to use the water infrastructure to provide broadband internet to San Juan. They are doing a great job. I am wearing this pin in solidarity and to show my appreciation for their work.”
A second woman immediately asked: “Why don’t you wear our pin then?”
Giancarlo took a brief breath and said: “Well actually we do have particular data-collaboration projects together and I look forward to wearing your pin. We have the launch of your new website, which followed our guidelines from the UX/UI Bootcamp. I am proud of that work and I will wear your pin when you launch the site. But we still must collaborate on open data initiatives. If we do this, I will wear your pin in every meeting I attend.”
Giancarlo Gonzalez is a crusader for open data and promoter of partnerships between agencies. He is also a young, popular, visible, and powerful man. Most people working in the government and many outside of the government want to be associated and connected to Giancarlo. A pin he wears will provide recognition in a wide variety of contexts. This is why a pin on his lapel means so much; symbols don’t mean anything on their own. Symbolic practices have value only for those who can recognize them. For example, if I wear the pin on my lapel instead of Giancarlo’s, it would not carry the same meaning.
After the meeting, Giancarlo said to me that in a previous meeting with the Department of Transportation he received the same query for using another agency pin and was asked to use theirs. He told me that he wears the pins to recognize the good work made by different agencies, and that at first he didn’t realize the power behind such a tiny symbol. Now, he feels their importance nearly every day.
As Giancarlo collects pins he is also collecting success stories about working together to spread the practices of using open data in Puerto Rico. So far Giancarlo is wearing five pins. We look forward to seeing what his coat looks like a year from now.