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VHacks: Inside the Vatican's First-Ever Hackathon

This past weekend, tourists milled around St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the holiest sites in the world, snapping selfies and experiencing Michelangelo’s art through their phone’s camera lens. A few hundred meters away, in a 500-year-old palazzo, 120 students coded for 36 hours straight at the Vatican’s first-ever hackathon. This, it would seem, is the Holy See of the 21st century.

“When I heard about it, I thought it was a joke. Vatican, hackathon—it didn’t add up,” says John Franklin, a senior at Northwestern University who found out about VHacks, the event’s official name, while participating in another hackathon in 2017. It wasn’t until he saw the event’s themes—creating technological solutions for encouraging social inclusion, promoting interfaith dialogue, and providing resources to migrants and refugees—that he realized it was not only real, but something he wanted to take part in. “I thought, ‘This is unique,’” he says.

And, apart from the unusual experience of hacking inside a room that dates back to 1490, it did prove to be special for Franklin. “At other hackathons, I’m creating, like, a shopping API or something for social media,” he says. “Here, I felt like my pitch means something to people.”

Holy See, Holy Do

The Vatican’s first-ever codefest came together last year after Jakub Florkiewicz, an MBA student at Harvard Business School, met the Reverend Eric Salobir, a founder of Optic, the first Vatican-affiliated think tank on technology, during a Harvard leadership summit in Rome. He and Salobir, who had already organized hackathons through Optic, began talking about putting one together in Vatican City.

The two paired up with Monsignor Lucio Ruiz from the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, and with the support of the Pontifical Council for Culture and Section for Migrants and Refugees of the Holy See, received approval to organize the Hackathon on behalf of the Vatican. According to Ruiz, Pope Francis was excited by the idea from the start, saying “Yes, we must do it!”

While the event’s holy location is novel (and a bit of misnomer; it actually took place about 200 meters from the border of the city-state), the hackathon still went down the way most hackathons do. The students—fueled by pasta, pastries, and lots of caffè—brainstormed and coded during a 36-hour sprint, many of them pulling all-nighters to complete their projects. They received consultation from 40 on-site mentors, many of whom represented Microsoft, Google, and other corporate sponsors of the event who taught the participants how to use their company’s tools and technologies (several of the projects included chatbots and virtual or augmented reality). The Wi-Fi proved to be a little sketchy, but that’s to be expected when a network is overclocked in a place known as the Ancient City.

Yet there were some things that set this particular hackathon apart. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Culture, dropped in to speak to the students—and tool around with VR goggles. The hacking space was in the Palazzo della Roveres, which also doubles as the headquarters of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. (Other events took place at Palazzo della Cancelleria, the former Apostolic Chancery of the Pope, and at the headquarters of the Jesuit Order, in the room in which the members of the order choose their generals.) And Pope Francis mentioned the hackathon during his weekly Sunday Angelus, the papal blessing delivered to a crowd of thousands.

Cardinals dropped in to speak to the students—and tool around with VR goggles.

The makeup of the attendees was also remarkable for a hackathon. The participants came from more than 30 countries, were nearly half-and-half male-female, and represented every major religion. Bob Schulz, a professor at the University of Calgary and the mentor for a team working on solutions for interfaith dialogue, pointed to the multi-faith background of his own students attending the event. “The hackathon is supposed to be about diversity, getting people of different faiths to go work together and develop respect for each other” he says, noting that his students represent Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Evangelical Christian backgrounds. “This group actually exemplified that diversity in action.”

Ultimately, judges winnowed down the 24 teams to a group of nine finalists. Judges awarded the top prize, $2,000 and mixed reality headsets from Microsoft, to three team representing each of the hackathon’s themes. The students tackling social inclusion created a web-based app called Co.unity that pairs local employers with homeless job seekers, reaching those populations through computer kiosks placed in at-risk areas. Five students from the University of Calgary attempted to foster interfaith dialogue through a social network called DUO Colleague (DUO being an acronym for “do unto others,” the Golden Rule), where organizations can tap into volunteer networks of any church or organization, syncing up potential volunteers with jobs that suit their personal preferences. And students from Georgetown University debuted an algorithmic system called Credit/Ability that attempts to help migrants and refugees build a safe and secure “credit”-type score.

VHacks organizers have set up a post-hackathon support program for the students. “Two weeks from now, we will collect more comprehensive presentations about the projects and submit them to our partners and mentors,” says Florkiewicz. “Selected partner organizations, like Google, Salesforce, and TIM [Vivendi], will revise the projects with the aim of accepting a few ideas into their incubation and acceleration programs.” And there’s already some interest from the Section for Migrants and Refugees of the Holy See. “They’re very interested in further cooperation with a few selected ideas in that field, to help the ventures come to life,” says Florkiewicz.

Crux of the Matter

Pope Francis became leader of the Catholic Church on March 13, 2013, almost five years ago to the day VHacks took place, and the event’s three themes reflect priorities the pontiff has expressed during his tenure.

The problem of displacement seems particularly urgent for Francis. His first trip as Holy Father was in 2013 to Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Italy dealing with an influx of refugees. He’s released lengthy messages each year on the “World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” and his theme for 2018’s World Day of Peace celebration was “Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace.” The pope has called protecting refugees a “moral imperative” (the UN estimates there are roughly 65 million displaced people in the world), and at his surprise TED talk last year, he implored technologists and entrepreneurs to apply innovation to solving the crisis. “How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion,” he said. “How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.”

This appeal to embrace technology and science is not new for the church. “In case you think this Vatican Hackathon is an unusual invention, let me just mention that we Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans and others embraced the printing press in the 16th century,” says the Reverend Michael Czerny, director of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section.

“This event is a part of a long history of the relationship the Vatican has with science, technology, and faith.”

Monsignor Lucio Ruiz, from the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication

James Heft, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, echoes this, pointing out the church’s history in studying astronomy and other fields. “Besides agricultural technology (fostered by the monasteries, especially the Cistercians), the church made tremendous advances in architecture,” he says via email. Johann Mendel, a 19th century Augustinian priest, is considered the father of genetics. Georges Lemaître, a priest from Belgium, proposed the theory we now call the Big Bang. And of course there’s Guglielmo Marconi, “inventor of the radio,” who lived in Vatican City when he set up Vatican Radio in the 1930s.

“Many people in the church want to do things using technology,” says Salobir. “The point is not only to use it for the parishioners or the congregations, but to use technology for a broader purpose, to help society.”

With more than 200,000 parishes and 1.25 billion members, the Catholic Church is also an excellent, to borrow a phrase, social network. “The churches have the world’s most extensive distribution network, which can be further improved to do good,” says Florkiewiez. “We think that technology could improve the scale and efficiency with which those organizations offer support and help to those in need.”

To that end, church representatives say the Vatican will host more hackathons in the future.

For this first group of participants, it remains to be seen if they’ll continue to work on the projects they started in Rome. But some are hopeful. Mike Swift, the CEO and co-founder of Major League Hacking, an organization that helped provide support during VHacks, said that at typical hackathons, only about 15 percent of participants continue working on the projects they pitch. Because VHacks set an impact-driven theme, he says, “we wouldn’t be surprised if this results in many more people continuing their work beyond the hackathon, potentially as high as 50 percent.”

As for Franklin, the Northwestern student, “I can see myself not only working on this project, but other projects like it,” he says. “I’d like to actually try to translate what I learned at this hackathon to other hackathons, to try to hit people emotionally like we did here.”


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