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Harvard Students Bring Hackathon to the Vatican

College students from around the world gathered in Vatican City last week to brainstorm technological solutions to contemporary social issues during a 36-hour “hackathon” organized by Harvard College and Business School students.

VHacks, which took place from March 8 to 11, was a joint-effort between Vatican officials, the Catholic think tank Optic, and students from the College, HBS, and MIT.

Cameron W. Akker ’18, the Chief Technology Officer of VHacks, said the hackathon sought to connect technologically talented students from around the world with the resources of the Catholic Church.

After arriving at the Vatican, the program sorted students into teams and assigned them to devise solutions addressing one of the conference’s three themes: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and migrants and refugees.

“There’s 1 billion Catholics in the world, so anything that the Church allows or accepts or endorses in some way has quite a broad impact,” Akker said. “Bringing together the technology of these smart young students with the age-old tradition of the Church, the mission was to see what the students can learn from the old institution of the Catholic Church and conversely, what the church can learn from this new wave of technology coming from these students.”

Between lectures, workshops, and ceremonies, the teams had a total of three days to work on their projects, which were then judged by a panel comprised of corporate sponsors and Vatican officials. Duo Collegare, a platform that connects volunteers and organizations, won first prize in the Interfaith Dialogue category. Co.unity, a crowdfunded job board for the homeless, took the gold in Social Inclusion, while Credit/Ability, an application designed to allow refugees to build financial credibility, came out on top in the Migrants and Refugees category.

The winners for each theme received $2,000 and Microsoft MR Goggles for each team member.

Lynn Xie, a Business School student and the Chief Marketing Officer of VHacks, said hackathon organizers worked hard to include a diverse array of participants. Xie noted that students hailed from 28 different countries, including India, Brazil, and the United States.

Forty-five percent of participants were women, a feat which Xie said is hard to achieve in the “male-dominated field” of technology. Sixty-five percent of students also received corporate sponsorship to cover travel costs.

“We had around 60 universities represented,” Xie said. “We didn’t want this to be an event that was exclusive based on cost so we made sure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds could attend. And all the major religions were also represented.”

Eric Eidelberg, a master’s student in computer science at the University of Calgary, worked with four other students from his school to create Duo Collegare. He said his team was inspired by a belief that “there’s too much dialogue and not enough doing” among different religious groups.

“The plan is to onboard multi-space religious, agnostic and cultural centers and promote people from different religions and cultures working together for a cause they care about,” Eidelberg said. “By going to a synagogue, a church, or mosque to get them all to work together-for the homeless, for animals in need, for helping recover from a natural crisis- we try to make religion a non-factor.”

Over the next couple of weeks, teams will submit presentations to the hackathon’s corporate partners such as Google and Salesforce, which—after revisions—will determine which projects to accept into the firms’ “incubation and acceleration programs,” Xie said.

“The prize money is meant to help these winning teams be able to leverage the funding to help bring these projects into life,” Xie said. “It’s not just about identifying the winners, it’s about how do you support them going forward."

— Staff writer Anna M. Kuritzkes can be reached at anna.kuritzkes@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaKuritzkes.

— Staff writer Grace A. Greason can be reached at grace.greason@thecrimson.com.

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