Latest Trip to Puerto Rico Opens Doors
Another Amazing Trip…
Our incredible partners and friends Mei Lin Fung of People-Centered Internet (PCI) and Marci Harris from PopVox visited Puerto Rico for the first time last week to not only experience the beautiful culture and people first-hand, but also to meet with big players and organizations to help accelerate the recovery of the island.
Both powerful women partnered through People-Centered Internet with a commitment to help Puerto Rico and bring with them their own experiences from their homes. Mei Lin Fung is from Singapore, where 50 years ago the country was in a similar financial situation that Puerto Rico is currently in. Singapore leapfrogged from struggling to feed, house, transport and get jobs for the people, to a country with world-class education, healthcare, tourism and banking, and now a leading digital economy with per capita income one of the highest in the world. She brings the vision of successful investing in people and sees opportunities for Puerto Ricans to thrive. Marci Harris’ hometown of Jackson, Tennessee was struck by a devastating tornado that flattened the town in 2004. From day one she was involved in the short-term and long-term recovery of Jackson, where her work eventually took her to become a Congressional staffer and lawyer. They both want to contribute their knowledge and experience to Project Coqui and Puerto Rico to help us rise against adversity.
During their stay on the island, Mei Lin and Marci heard first-hand how life changed drastically for Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria. Even now, there are 400,000 without power six months after the storm and even then, the power grid is fragile with some temporarily losing power daily. That is just a single challenge of so many people have faced. One such story they encountered is of Lisa Sanchez, a high school teacher who came home every night crying, listening to the suffering of her students.
Their visit coincided with ICANN61 taking place in San Juan, being the first major conference to take place in Puerto Rico after the hurricanes swept through in September. The ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) conference, which concluded March 15, brought together over 2,000 people of the ICANN community from every edge of the world who are focused on making the Internet secure and stable. Mei Lin has been a part of an ICANN working group for the last year and was able to attend an in-person meeting for the first time in Puerto Rico!
This conference provided a wonderful opportunity to network with the minds that see opportunities for Puerto Rican economic growth through the Internet to leverage this powerful technology to provide unprecedented access to education, medical assistance, economic opportunity, services, and personal connections. The goal here is to leapfrog Puerto Rico to a digital economy. Our dream for Puerto Rico is fostering the local vision and engaging the global Internet community network, to foster innovation, provide tools and knowledge, and to experiment with network-oriented models that will enable and empower communities to rise from poverty, resulting in job creation and economic growth.
The duo had a series of meetings last week to dive into the current challenges being experienced in Puerto Rico and identify solutions or pathways for progress in the island’s recovery. No small task!
Mei Lin and Marci visited Javier Jimenez, Director of the Puerto Rico Primary Care Association Network (PRPCAN) which works with a network of 90 community healthcare centers and practicing physicians across the island. Javier was also a participant in our workshop conducted in San Juan and was a great voice in the community, committed to recovery since day one. In the weeks after the storm, the entire staff of PRPCAN’s headquarters banded together to go out and support these community health centers, even when some of the staff themselves lost their homes in the unrelenting hurricane.
That same afternoon, Mei Lin and Marci joined up with Matt Rantanen (to my surprise, as I had met him myself the week before at the North American School of Internet Governance in San Juan)! Matt is the Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association where one of his focuses is working to provide community broadband on Native American tribal lands. His background and experience fit perfectly with what we are striving to do: provide knowledge and tools through community-level access to the Internet.
The three of them traveled to two of PRPCAN’s community health centers in Ciales and Lares to meet with their IT directors. Realizing that there are at least one of these centers in each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities that could be connected to broadband fiber, there is an opportunity to combine their cumulative purchasing power to reduce the cost of broadband coverage to each surrounding community.
Another day, Marci went with NetHope, an organization focused on partnering non-profits with technological innovators, to visit a remote school. During that time, Mei Lin met with leaders working on social impact and economic recovery at the largest bank on the island, Banco Popular. This offers a great occasion to work with them as they rally the business, government, and academic communities to lead recovery efforts through a program called Echar Pa'lante (Moving Forward), which draws leaders from all sectors for this cause.
Lastly, Mei Lin and Marci headed to Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico. The first visit was to the Pontifical Catholic University, another place we conducted a dream workshop two weeks ago, to meet with the Architecture Department (Professors Lorna Baez and Juan Emmanuelli) and the Business Administration Department (Professor Eileen Figueroa and Dean David Zayas Montalvo). During their conversation, the university staff was thrilled to learn from Mei Lin about the Vatican Hackathon. This is a hacking event that took place last week at the Vatican where students from across the world with varying academic and religious backgrounds focus on utilizing technological innovations to overcome social barriers and address current global problems. This would be a valuable angle to interest the Bishop and Chancellor at the university in the concepts of entrepreneurship and the Internet, and open additional opportunities for their students.
While between meetings, they got to experience some of the best Ponce has to offer: a tour of the historic Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (or simply put, the Ponce Cathedral) as well as the Armstrong house in Ponce’s Central Plaza. And, of course, no trip to Ponce is complete without a break to enjoy some domplines, the Puerto Rican version of dumplings…though they more likely resemble fried dough than dumplings!
The team then moved on to meet with Crystal J. Bell, the Director of Ponce Tourism and Economic Development, to identify potential sites for co-working spaces as well as the previously identified buildings by Melvin Cordova, PCI’s lead for Puerto Rico, and designer Dror Benshetrit. There is a multitude of large, unused spaces that could be renovated and house dozens of start-up companies or collaborative projects.
There are many reasons to be excited about the opportunities that exist and work toward a thriving Puerto Rico through innovative solutions. There were many reasons for pessimism as well: The Jones Act, the politics, the previous attempts that fizzled. Yet, the hurricane has woken people up, and business "as usual" is no longer what it used to be.
Our collaborative effort with PCI and their extensive network of pioneers made the work possible that unleashed a revolution of information, innovation, and commerce. My colleagues and I now see an opportunity to work with the “white canvas” of the rebuilding effort in Puerto Rico to leverage this technology for societal good, increased opportunity, and a safer world for all generations to come. May the lessons shared in this article pique the interest and pleasure of the reader to contribute to the movement to help Puerto Rico rise. Everyone plays a role in innovation!