The Trinity of Takeaways: Hacking the Vatican

Religion, meet tech. Vatican, meet hacking. Pope Francis talked about the growth of scientific and technological innovation coming along with more equality and social inclusion in his TED talk last year. This formed the basis of VHacks, the first hackathon at the Vatican.

Me + the Pope on my shirt next to our hacking venue (Hotel Columbus, in view of the Vatican!)

Adventures at seven other hackathons have taught me that you never fully know what to expect at each event beyond getting little sleep, building something cool, and making new friends. VHacks re-defined the hackathon experience by linking tech-based creation with a focus on human-driven, ethically centered challenges, and creating a diverse participant base to tackle these problems.

I’ve condensed ~72 hours into a trinity of takeaways:

1. Tech can & should be used to make services more accessible for all.

2. Tech needs diversity across genders, ethnicities, and generations.

3. A human-centered approach is key to making tech benefit humanity.

  1. Tech can & should be used to make services more accessible for all.

When someone says ‘tech’, I immediately think of Silicon Valley, open-concept offices, tech exec at WWDC-like conferences. By assigning hackathon teams to one of three themes (social inclusion, migrants and refugees, or interfaith dialogue) VHacks fostered conversations about how tech can solve tangible yet seemingly inaccessible problems. Google’s Carlo D’Asaro talked about making more inclusive, ethically-driven tech for the future as an avenue to ‘stop scaring people’ with the idea that tech is taking over humanity.

“Promoting fear of what tech can do isn’t going to help push the world forwards. We need to talk about the problems and tackle them beforehand. ”

Making technology more accessible by reducing size, energy, cost allows for quality of life increases for people with varied abilities, lower incomes, and in remote geographies. Fundamentally, I’ve always associated tech only with big companies — but VHacks pushed me to think about how tech connects individuals and small communities to create a global network, and how it can be used to solve challenging problems like the themes mentioned above.

Two: Tech needs diversity across genders, ethnicities, and generations.

Gender diversity is something important we’re working towards in tech — but better tech comes from being diverse beyond enders. With ~110 hackers and 50+ mentors from 30+ countries, VHacks demonstrated the importance of diversity across generations, academic backgrounds, ethnicities, and abilities. Asking a rabbi about interfaith dialogue, hearing from panels with Vatican administration, Ethereum BoD members, and Google exec side by side, mixing computer science PhD students with business undergrads — this variety of perspectives allows for socially-oriented, human-centered tech that tackles root challenges.

Three: A human-centered approach is key to making tech benefit humanity.

Limited biology as humans has made us dependent on technology as a way to enhance our humanity. Maintaining this relationship means focusing on the design and ethics sides of tech: talking to users, considering impacts of product design, understanding who the products are made for, and what human problems they’re solving. The idea of reprogramming the values of tech to starting with why you’re creating something, to continually make projects which mean something to people and build companies that serve humanity rather than just the interests of shareholders.

Five countries, five universities, three religions, endless laughter, and one shared goal.

My team tackled interfaith dialogue and made a Chrome extension called Pluralize. It analyzes your religious demographic breakdown based on your Facebook friend data and produces a visualization that compares your social circles to world and country religious breakdowns. Ideally, it would suggest further curated reading about certain faiths and your interests. Other finalist projects included credit-score building for refugees, interfaith dialogue social networks, and AR faith experiences, and portable EMR records for migrants.

Creating in such a diverse space, with people united for a common goal, put to action all the reading I’ve done about making tech human-centered, diverse, and accessible. On the final Sunday, the pope spoke about the hackathon and its participants during his weekly speech in St. Peter’s Square. I’m happy to be blessed.

Read more:

An inside look from Wired

More about what we’re hacking from Catholic News Agency

Spot me sketching out user flows at 0:21

Thanks to all of the organizers, mentors, participants and partners who made this event a reality!

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