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Students use gifts to help others

More than 100 students gathered recently in Rome to use their talents in the first-ever Vatican Hackathon, a collaborative event that harnessed the technical skills and creativity of young people to address issues of social inclusion, interfaith dialogue and assistance for migrants and refugees.


"The focus on doing things that are not necessarily for profit but for social good is what's absolutely awesome about this event," said Moe Sunami, 19, a student at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

A hackathon is a sprint-like "marathon of the mind" in which multidisciplinary teams of computer programmers, graphic designers and project managers work for hours to create thoughtful solutions to problems. In the case of this hackathon, known as VHacks, students used technological innovation to overcome social barriers.

Event organizers and volunteers were inspired by Pope Francis' TED Talk last year, where he explained "why the only future worth building includes everyone." In addition to leveraging technology to help others, VHacks sought to "promote collaboration among youth leaders across diverse academic, ethnic and religious backgrounds; and encourage values-based institutions to embrace technology to further their missions."

Jakub Florkiewicz, an MBA student at Harvard Business School who helped organize VHacks, stressed that nearly half of the participants were women and that students represented 60 different universities in 28 countries. On-site mentors from places such as Google, Salesforce and Microsoft provided support.

Collaboration, respect and trust were important because most of the 24 teams were formed by participants meeting each other for the first time. During the 36-hour coding marathon, students brainstormed, used their diverse skills to develop a prototype and prepared a pitch to convince the judges of their application's positive impact.

After the hackathon and project presentations, a winning team from each category received $2,000 to be used as seed money for their projects. Later on, corporate sponsors would select some of the innovative ideas for further development.

The results were impressive.

The migrant and refugee category winners developed their app after meeting resilient refugees at a migrant center in Rome.

Georgetown University students from Washington realized that many landlords had negative views of refugees even if they were able to afford housing. They created Credit/Ability, which allows refugees to collate their history (employment, income and payment history in their host country) to demonstrate their reliability, which would compute a "credibility score" that could lead to long-term housing.

The students' spirit of collaboration and their drive to exchange their knowledge and talents at the service of society was inspiring. To me, it really brought home what Pope Francis said during his TED Talk about how creativity is linked to rediscovering the needs of others and how the future is about encounter and solidarity.

Neil Gokhlay, whose team created a health care application for refugees that allows people on the move to have a medical history record that doctors at different refugee camps can access and update, told MIT that many students want to "keep the ball rolling" and continue their projects.

The students' goal was to create something that was "feasible, viable and sustainable," which could better other people's lives, said Obus. Their efforts were on making a difference, and not just winning an event.

“We are really proud of (Credit/Ability) and excited by the potential it has," Obus told her university. "Our team is regrouping to think about how to leverage the prize money and interest from outside partners to build it into something real."

Negro Chin is bilingual associate editor of Maryknoll magazines.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018