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.”

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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.

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.

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