A March 8-11 “hacking marathon” at the Vatican is in full swing, with 120 students of different backgrounds, faiths, and disciplines working to “hack” into global social problems in 36 hours of innovative brainstorming.
“VHacks” is the first-ever Vatican hackathon, and the young participants and organizers have said that the location is an integral part of the event’s impact and appeal.
“It still sounds so strange: a hackathon at the Vatican,” said Cameron, a 21-year-old participant. “And that's what makes it so amazing — the fact that you wouldn’t expect it.”
Cameron is an electrical engineering student at Harvard and on the organizing committee of VHacks. He told CNA the fact that VHacks is taking place at all says a lot “about how the Vatican, especially with Pope Francis’ style, is embracing technology a little bit more than it has before.”
Hailing from 60 different countries, participants work in teams to tackle challenges related to the broader themes of social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and refugees and migrants.
Each team chooses a challenge to “hack” during the conference, working nearly round-the-clock to come up with creative, technological solutions. At the end, all the teams will present their solutions to judges who choose the top projects and the final winners.
Ibrahim, 21, is from Pakistan and is studying industrial engineering and management at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.
He told CNA that the themes of VHacks are good in and of themselves, “but to have [the event] at such an important place just adds to it and adds to how serious we are in figuring out and solving these problems.”
A Muslim, he considers the Vatican a “landmark,” and a “sacred place,” which adds to the overall environment of the hackathon. “I think this is an extremely amazing initiative,” he said.
Hailing from Buenos Aires in Argentina, Sebastian, 24, told CNA that he has participated in hackathons before, but this one is “on another scale,” and that’s what first piqued his interest.
As a Catholic, he was also glad to see the Church getting involved in something like a hackathon, he said, noting that he has been invited to different hackathons before but decided against participating because compared to VHacks, “something was always missing.”
Lucy, 29, told CNA that she is really excited by “how invested this hackathon is in the human perspective and understanding what the user’s needs are.” She is a master’s student studying human-centered design thinking at Georgetown University.
Her team members, who all came from Georgetown, a partner in the event, chose the migrants and refugees challenge. “When you think about refugees in the big scope, it seems like there's no point of entry that's going to succeed,” she said.
“So how do we as individuals or as groups find an entry into that? I really think it is through this human-centered design” that VHacks is focused on.
The hackathon is also interspersed with educational opportunities, including panels and workshops on topics related to the themes. Participants can also avail themselves of advice and guidance from experienced “mentors” present to help throughout the conference.
“It's not just a hackathon but a learning experience and a team-building experience,” Lucy said.
The event will conclude with Mass and sightseeing in St. Peter’s Basilica March 11, followed by attendance at the Pope’s Sunday Angelus and his papal blessing in St. Peter’s Square.
Dominican Fr. Eric Salobir, a co-chairman of VHacks and a consultor for the Secretariat of Communications, told CNA that having the hackathon at the Vatican is very symbolic, and allows big issues to be tackled from the global perspective offered by the Church.
Salobir is also the founder of the OPTIC network, a disruptive technology think-tank which frequently collaborates with the Holy See.
Explaining the term hackathon, Cameron clarified that while the words “hack” or “hacking” can have negative connotations, the phrase in this case is used to mean “hacking into a problem that has no clear start.”
“It just comes down to finding an entry point and saying, ‘This is where we're going to start looking at it.’”
He acknowledged that it is unrealistic to think that solutions to these problems can possibly be found in just 24 or 36 hours. But what they want to do is “plant a seed” and create something to expand on in the future.
The environment of the hackathon, which lacks the usual pressures found in a career setting, makes it really “conducive to innovation,” he stated.
In the end, it is hoped that some of the new ideas produced will be brought to fruition by the corporations, foundations and private donors sponsoring the hackathon.
A lofty goal, Salobir said they even hope to have some examples “of how technology can help to solve problems” in place by the time of the synod on the youth in October. “We hope to be able to show very practical, useful solutions,” he said.
“We saw from our experiences [putting on hackathons] in San Francisco and Paris that the students are incredibly creative in the way to use technology positively, in a way the older generations cannot imagine. They were born in this time of digital technology and sharing economy and they can provide a lot.”
“I have no clue what they will do practically, I have just the experience of other hackathons. But at other hackathons they really came with amazing ideas. I hope that this time it will be the same and they will really blow our minds with their creativity.”