Not the usual hackathon: Five Columbia students travel to Rome for the Vatican’s VHacks competition


“How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion.” – Pope Francis

With the Pope’s full support and encouragement, the Vatican held its first ever hackathon, VHacks, over the March 8-11 weekend. Five Columbia students were among the 120 participating from 60 universities around the world.

Held in Rome steps from Vatican City, VHacks was a hackathon with a distinct European flavor. The hackathon itself took place in the centuries-old Palazzo della Rovere (which houses the Order of the Holy Sepulchre). Cardinals and other high-ranking curates along with secular dignitaries (the Prince of Liechtenstein) circulated among the students for demos in VR and other technologies.

In outward form, VHacks hewed closely to established hackathon outlines—a marathon coding session (in this case 36 hours interspersed with panels); corporate partners like Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce on site to hold workshops and give guidance on use of their products; prizes for the top projects; and plenty of free food, albeit of a higher quality than normally found at hackathons.

Where the VHacks diverged most noticeably was in its singular focus on social good, not market potential. Reflecting papal priorities, all projects fit one of three themes: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and resources to migrants and refugees. Each team before arriving in Rome was assigned one of the three themes. Diversity was another VHacks priority, with teams preselected to ensure equal representation by gender, religion, and background. Except in three or four instances, students arrived without having previously met their teammates in person.

For Myra Deng, a junior currently studying in Budapest, the chance to work toward social good was what finally convinced her to bite the bullet and enter her first hackathon. Vivian Shen, a hackathon veteran and the organizer of DevFest, signed up out of curiosity; she wanted to see how the Catholic church would embrace technology.

Being selected for a team rather than selecting your own team was another way VHacks diverged from other hackathons. Both Deng and Shen were on the same team (though they did not know one another previously), and while their team-mates quickly became close, there was an added layer of difficulty and adjustment. “You come in not knowing your team members’ strengths and weaknesses,” says Shen. “You have to both meet people and think up a new idea. It’s an additional element.”

For Nicole Valencia, not having to compete against a crowd of pre-established teams was one of the attractions. As a first-time hackathon competitor, she appreciated how VHacks leveled by the playing field by removing the advantages enjoyed by teams who come into a competition already formed, often knowing one another very well. She appreciated also the chance to interact and work with people from vastly different backgrounds.

Tomer Aharoni, fresh off two hackathons in six weeks (MakeHarvard, which his team won, and DevFest, where his team placed second) was impressed at the efforts made by organizers to ensure participation by top schools and students, and to enlist high-level executives from the corporate world. Among those serving as mentors, judges, and panelists were Google’s president of strategic relationships in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa as well as the former CEO of Ethereum Foundation, the Senior Vice President of Salesforce, the Senior Director of Microsoft, and many others.

Aharoni too chafed a bit at not being able to pick his own team or his own topic. With only three themes and 24 teams, it was harder to design a unique project that stood out from all the others. His team’s job-finding platform—which matched potential employers with migrants and refugees who advertised their skills via pictures rather than language—was one of four job-oriented projects, and though it drew outside interest (specifically by an Airbnb executive who floated the idea of doing a pilot), having a team scattered across several countries would seem to work against building a cohesive team to bring an idea to market.

VHacks organizers do hope a high percentage of participants (as high as 50%) will continue working on what they started (only 15% do in a typical hackathon). To help achieve that goal, mentors outnumbered competitors almost two to one, giving advice freely on both technical and business model aspects. Says Valencia, “I especially found it fascinating that not everyone was explicitly tech. One of our team members—not from computer science—had a brilliant mind and eye for design and was crucial is making a successful business presentation, something important not just for the judging rounds but in making pitches to potential investors.” Valencia’s team would go on to win third place in the interfaith category.

While it remains to be seen how successful VHacks will be in developing and scaling up hackathon projects for the real world, VHacks was tremendously successful in inspiring participants to think hard about how technology can be put to work for social good. Neil Chen, a veteran of over 10 hackathons, drew upon new social network analysis research done at Columbia to connect migrants in urban areas with local businesses to ease integration. “I’ve never before synthesized ideas from so many unique perspectives. After drawing from Professors Bellovin and Chaintreau’s paper on inferring ethnic migration patterns, we consulted with Maya, a Syrian refugee currently working as a web developer, and Bogomil Kohlbrenner, a social anthropologist from the University of Geneva, to figure out how to most effectively connect migrants to resources in their communities. Their experiences and Columbia research guided our application development.”

Deng and Shen’s team finished third in the social inclusion category with Xperience, a one-on-one livestreaming app intended to connect people who can’t travel—refugees and migrants, the elderly, those with disabilities—with others at a selected location who are willing to serve as guides, providing real-time, on-the-ground video. For Shen, the motivation came after attending the opening ceremonies and hearing how a Syrian refugee, separated from her family in Syria, was able through friends in France and Budapest to apply for a visa and help send money to her family. For those without such resources, Xperience serves as a virtual pen pal, providing long-distance experiences and friendships to those who may not have access to them.

And in including those otherwise excluded, Xperience perfectly fits the spirit of VHacks while showing the potential of technology and science to promote social good.


Posted 04/05/18
Linda Crane