The Vatican Hosts a Hackathon

In recent years, organizations have used hackathons to find code-enabled solutions for everything from the opioid crisis to gerrymandering. It's hard to imagine a field where a hack day hasn't been utilized to solve one problem or another. But tomorrow a group of budding entrepreneurs, developers, and technologists will be making hackathon history: participating in the first-ever codefest in Vatican City.

The event, VHacks, is bringing together 120 students for a 36-hour hackathon aimed at finding technological solutions for three global issues the Catholic Church hopes to address: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and assistance for migrants and refugees.

The seed of the idea sprouted last year when Jakub Florkiewicz, a student at Harvard Business School, met the Reverend Eric Salobir, founder of Optic, the first Vatican-affiliated think tank on technology and Monseigneur Lucio Ruiz from the Vatican's Secretariat for Communication. Salobir had helped organize hackathons through Optic before, in San Francisco and Paris, but he was thinking of coordinating one at the church's enclave in Rome. "In the past couple of years, the Vatican has been in a period of transformation initiated by Pope Francis, including in terms of using digital technologies and digital media," Salobir says. "This is the first [hackathon] at the Vatican, so it is very symbolic."

In his tenure, Francis has embraced social media—he has 17 million Twitter followers and more than 5 million devotees on Instagram—and even spoke last year at TED, the conference famous for drawing flocks of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and technologists. But he’s also openly discussed the peril of technology. In his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, released in 2015, Francis directly addressed technology’s influence and implications in a lengthy chapter titled, "The roots of the ecological crisis." In it, he asked that the church focus on the "dominant technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world" and examine the globalization of that paradigm.

Because technological applications can have international impacts, the organizers of the hackathon focused on soliciting participants from universities and programs around the world, looking for candidates from different backgrounds and faiths. "A key message on this event is collaboration and working together on the issues we all experience," Florkiewicz says. "Even if it’s facilitated by the Vatican as a religious institution, it’s a completely non-religious event."

Salobir agrees. "The point is not just to use it for the parishioners or the congregations, but to use technology for a broader purpose, to help society," he says, noting the church also works with institutions like schools and hospitals to bring aid to as large a constituency as possible.

But as society continues to question whether technology is the problem or the solution, the participants of VHacks have a big task ahead of them.

"We don’t expect anyone to solve such difficult issues," says Florkiewicz, "but I hope we can inspire both clerics and lay people to see this as an innovative model for engaging the younger generation with the problems."

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