Vatican Opens the Doors to Hacking

“It is a beautiful thing to put the intelligence that we have been given by God at the service of truth and for the needy.”

You might not peg the Vatican as being a source for technological advancement. Think again.

The first ever Vatican Hackathon, also known as VHacks, hosted 120 students from 60 universities from March 8-11 to unite intelligences to help solve three problems: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and migrants and refugees.

This was done through the form of a hackathon, a sprint-like event where a group of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming to create innovations.

“It has nothing to do with hacking computer systems or breaking firewalls. It is about hacking the problems of the world, to use the strength of technology to create good,” said Jakub Florkiewicz, VHacks Co-Chairman.

In this case, university students from different cultures and faiths worked simultaneously for 36 hours to resolve the current issues close to the heart of Pope Francis. The projects were mentored by some of the biggest technological companies and judged by business experts, programming experts and experts on the hackathon themes.

“Seeing people from all over the world coming together and click and work instantly, was nothing short of remarkable for me to watch happen,” said one mentor.

Inspired by Pope Francis’ Ted Talk, this idea came about from a group of students from Harvard Business School who wanted to challenge the stigma of the Vatican being antic and traditional to see if it could be a place for technology and modernity.

“Combining an institution that cares so much about social impact and improving the world and bringing that element of awareness to the students to attack these current global issues, I think that is the link,” said Lynn Xie, VHacks Chief Marketing Officer.

When this project was presented to Pope Francis, he mentioned that he wanted these projects to truly become a reality, said Msgr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz, secretary of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, at a news conference.

They collaborated with Optic, a research network, to show that the Vatican “could be the crossroads for many cultures and religions where people come and do things together,” said Fr. Eric Salobir, President of Optic and VHacks Co-Chairman.

That’s exactly what they did.

“We’re not attacking, we’re defending. We are here all together to defend the causes we all believe in,” said Florkiewicz.

Twenty-four teams competed to solve problems within social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and migrants and refugees to create web or mobile applications with the aid of current technologies.

“I want to create real world, useful problem-solving technology, so this hackathon was just what I needed to help me figure out what spaces I can go into,” said Rachana Lingutla, recent computer science graduate from the University of Massachusetts.

Her project, Vinculum, developed a web-app that leveraged machine learning to reunite loved ones through the upload of a single photo and advanced face-recognition technology. Their goal was to help migrants and refugees stay connected during relocation and won the Audience Choice Award.

Another project, Zelixa, worked toward social inclusion using Microsoft’s Hololens Virtual Reality headset. They created “a Hololens app that helps dyslexic people train themselves to read better over time. It uses the technique of focus points, typefaces and colors, to help those with dyslexia focus on the correct portions of words.”

However, many students applied to participate in this Hackathon not only for the technology but also for the mission to use technology as a tool to address current issues.

“There are so many problems that need to be addressed and I think this was a much more productive way going about solving issues, rather than coming together and making something cool, but you don’t really know if that adds something to society in a way that’s productive,” said Tiffany Chen, computer science and economics student at Brown University.

Chen helped develop the project, Co-Unity, an application “to build stronger ties with the homeless in each community by creating a local crowdfunded job board to enrich vocational experiences and develop trust.” With this, they took first prize in the social inclusion division.

Many students who were hackathon alumni were impressed by the organization of the Vatican Hackathon, despite religious affiliations.

“I am not a very religious person myself but I’m so glad that Pope Francis and the Vatican decided to support this Hackathon,” said Alan Liu, computer science student at Yale University. “They’re reaching out to other faiths, people with all different backgrounds and cultures, and I really think that this is a step forward, because at the end of the day we are all human.”

“There were a lot of talks and panels from leaders within the Church, as well as NGOs and, for example, people who work at refugee camps,” said Pranav Gokhale, computer science Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. “That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in a hackathon, so it was a nice blend.”

Former refugee, Francis Duahn, EMBA and international relations graduate from the University of Calgary, also participated in VHacks. He migrated from Liberia and after 15 years in a refugee camp, settled in Canada where he became “a cowboy” and started high school at age 27. “This is the greatest day of my life because I can grab something and be a part of the future.”

After judging the projects based on the impact, the viability and the innovation complexity, one team under each category won $2,000 as seed money to continue developing the projects.

There will be a post-hackathon support program where selected partner organizations, such as Google, Salesforce and TIM, will revise the projects with the aim to accept some into their incubation and acceleration programs. Mentors have also agreed to continue a long-term mentorship to provide support.

The Migrants and Refugees Section of the Holy See expressed their interest in further cooperation with selected projects to help these ventures come to life.

“We hope that we will contribute to a more human, more generous and more sustainable use of technology for the good, not for the few but for many,” said Fr. Michael Czerny, Under-secretary for Migrants and Refugees Section

Pope Francis concluded the event by thanking the VHacks participants after his Sunday Angelus address, “It is a beautiful thing to put the intelligence that we have been given by God at the service of truth and for the needy.”

Watch their full story on EWTN’s latest episode of Vaticano, which is embedded above. (VHacks story starts at the 12:42 mark.)