Harvard Students Help Bring First Ever Hackathon to the Vatican

Pippa Lamb, Editor Emeritus

In the first of a two part series, Editor Emeritus Pippa Lamb (HBS ‘18) takes a look at the first-ever hackathon to be hosted at the Vatican.

You might not expect to read the words “Hackathon” and “Vatican” in the same sentence. However, this month, a Harvard-led team of students is helping to change just that.

On March 8th-11th, for the first time in history, the concept of a “hackathon” will be brought to The Vatican. Co-organized by OPTIC – a global think-tank dedicated to ethical issues of disruptive technologies, the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, The Pontifical Council for Culture, Migrants & Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, the non-religious 36-hour “VHacks” event will gather 120 students from around the world to “hack” together solutions to some of the world’s most pressing societal issues. The event will include participants from all faiths, and is being sponsored by major tech companies including Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.

Co-initiator of the event, Jakub Florkiewicz, is a second-year student at Harvard Business School, who worked at the Vatican in the summer between his first and second year. The organizing team consists of students from Harvard Business School, Harvard College, and other schools such as MIT.

While in popular culture hackathons are often only associated with coding, the term has garnered wider application in recent years. In the case of VHacks, rather than requiring participants to specifically program software in a time-pressured environment, “hackers” will be divided into multi-disciplinary teams, including computer programmers, graphic designers, and project managers. Each team will be asked to think innovatively about how to apply technology thoughtfully to address broad societal issues, such as social inclusion, interfaith dialogue, and migrants and refugees.

In recent years, a number of other non-profit and government organisations have used this “hackathon for a cause” concept to tackle specific social, humanitarian or public interest issues. In 2011, the United States Congress organized a hackathon devoted to the cause of open government, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) runs the “International Space Apps Challenge” every year – a 48-hour event that simultaneously takes place in cities around the world, focused on space exploration. In 2014, the British government organized “DemetiaHack”, a hackathon designed to foster ideas around improving the lives of people living with dementia and their caregivers.

The participants of VHacks will represent thinking from a diverse range of academic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Hacker candidates were either put forward by partner universities, or applied through an open, online application process, whereby any student enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program was eligible to apply. In turn, participants were selected on the basis of their accomplishments and ability to demonstrate creative thinking.

“On a societal level, VHacks is a historic event that bridges the wisdom of immortal institutions with innovators in technology” explains Lynn Xie (Harvard Business School ’18), VHacks Director of Communications. “There are no blueprints. VHacks is the first of its kind”.

“The mission statement of VHacks is unique”, agrees Mohib Jafri (Harvard College ’21), a VHacks team member and an organizer of HackHarvard, Harvard College’s annual hackathon, whose job is to oversee the selection of judges and coordinate final presentations. “To hack with a purpose—to hack with the good of others in mind— is a mission that I see myself devoting my life to in the future. Creating the intersection between social good and technology, on an international platform, is a no-brainer. I can’t wait to see some of our 24 teams take their VHacks prototype and apply it to the real world, to help real people.”

“The problems that we’re posing to the hackers are BIG, and hard”, admits Anita Mehrotra (Harvard Business School ’18), Director of Senior Guest Experiences. “I wish I was hacking! It’s the first hackathon that has resonated with me at a personal level, and I think it’s pretty incredible that we have such a diverse range of participants and organizers who have come together to work on this. I strongly believe that data science and tech play a role in bigger, societal problems.”

“We’re cognizant that the students won’t be able to solve the global issues we’ve selected for them to face”, explains Florkiewicz. “But this has never been the goal. Our mission is to inspire young people around the world to collaborate across divides, and use technology to address social issues. If we want to make to world the better place, we need to make the next generation aware of the magnitude of these global problems, and teach them how to work on the basis of their shared values, rather than their differences.”

Throughout the hackathon, events will take place at various historical venues in the Vatican City, including the former Apostolic Chancery of the Pope, and the headquarters of the Jesuit Order. The event will close with two panels that explore the implications of technological advancement on human values.

Vatican Valley?

While such an event does represent a historic first for the Vatican, VHacks comes at a time when the Holy See’s efforts to put a more modern, technologically-minded foot forward are increasingly palpable. Pope Benedict XVI famously made history in 2012 as the first pope to send a tweet, with Pope Francis not only following in his footsteps, but also setting up an Instagram account in 2016. His account (@franciscus) is run separately from the official Vatican account, which is administered by the Secretariat for Communication, a part of the Roman curia. Yes, the Vatican now has a dedicated social media team. Pope Francis also delivered a surprise TedTalk in April 2017 – albeit a pre-recorded one from his desk at the Vatican.

Most recently, the Vatican has also taken nascent steps to build bridges with the venture capital world. At the end of 2016, two California-based venture funds approached the Vatican for support in running a competition for start-ups addressing climate change, energy and managing resources. While the Vatican did not contribute funds, it did help facilitate the event, lending various Vatican-owned Rome venues to host to the different events. This incubator-style initiative, entitled “Laudato Si” – referencing Pope Francis’ writings on climate change in 2015 – provided nine participating start-ups with $100k in seed funding for a 6-8% equity stake, remote mentoring, and a December Demo Day at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican. Not a bad backdrop to locate your ping-pong table.

So, what can we expect to see out of VHacks 2018?

In the organizers’ own words, the event will “leverage technology to address current global problems centered on hackathon themes; promote collaboration among youth leaders across diverse academic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds; and encourage value-based institutions to embrace technology to further their missions.” A bit of a mouthful, and certainly not an easy task.

The true ambition of the hackathon, perhaps, is to set an example to other powerful global institutions around the world. “We hope the event sends a message to every values-based organization in the world – not just the Catholic Church – that leveraging technology alongside the skills and motivation of young people can help address societal issues, on both a micro and macro scale”, Florkiewicz concludes. “Religious institutions are ultimately the world’s largest NGOs – educating, healing, or helping people across the continents. We believe technology can improve the scale and efficiency of their operations, to better support those in need.”

What is a Hackathon?

Combining the words “hacking” and “marathon”, a hackathon is a sprint-like event in which multi-disciplinary teams (including computer programmers, graphic designers, project managers, etc.) collaborate to create thoughtful technological solutions to problems. In recent years, the concept of a “hackathon for a cause” has become more common, with events designed to tackle specific social, humanitarian or public interest issues.

Vatican Valley Timeline

2012 –    Pope Benedict XVI becomes the first pope to send a tweet

2016 –    In addition to continuing tweeting, Pope Francis sets up an Instagram account

2017 –    The Vatican supports an incubator-style initiative “Laudato Si”, a competition for start-ups addressing climate change, energy and managing resources. While the Vatican did not contribute funds, it did help facilitate the event, lending various Vatican-owned properties as venues. The initiative provided nine start-ups with $100k in seed funding in exchange for a 6-8% equity stake, remote mentoring, and a December Demo Day at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican.

2017 –    In an address to mark “World Youth Day”, Pope Francis warns of the perils of social media and reality TV. “Don’t let yourselves be led astray by this false image of reality! Be the protagonists of your history; decide your own future.”

2017 –    Pope Francis delivers a surprise TedTalk, recorded from his desk at the Vatican

2018 –    VHacks, the first ever hackathon at the Vatican, takes place

Meet some of the VHacks Team:

Jakub Florkiewicz – Co-initiator
Jakub is a second-year student at Harvard Business School. While pursuing an MBA at HBS, Jakub won awards in hackathons at Harvard Innovation Lab, at MIT Media Lab and at a startup competition in the Silicon Valley. He has worked at the Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of State Treasury and Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland. Prior to that Jakub was a senior consultant at McKinsey & Company, supported a technology transfer program at European Space Agency and co-founded two start-ups. He has authored a number of articles for Forbes, Bloomberg and The Economist.

Lynn Xie — Director of Communications
Lynn is a second-year student at Harvard Business School, with experience in both digital and traditional media, having worked in content acquisition at Hulu and franchise management at Disney. Specifically, Lynn focused on growing Disney’s top IP (including Spider-Man, Avengers, Star Wars, etc.) globally. Prior to Disney, Lynn worked at Morgan Stanley in investment banking. In her spare time, Lynn enjoys reviewing films, painting, and playing the piano.

What brought you to VHacks?/How did you get involved?

  •      On a societal level, VHacks is a historic event that bridges the wisdom of immortal institutions with innovators in technology. There are no blueprints – VHacks is the first of its kind. Helping to realize a global-level idea for the first time is a thrilling experience.
  •      On a personal level, I wanted to make an impact bigger than myself. HBS teaches you the theory of leadership in the classroom, but I wanted to leverage these skills in the real world simultaneously. What better learning experience than applying what you’re learning first-hand while making a positive social impact?

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks DURING the event?

  •      I am thrilled to meet these incredible hackathon participants! I am working with Microsoft to create video essays of select candidates, showcasing their journey before, during, and after VHacks. I am looking forward to sharing the mission of VHacks with the world – an inclusive event for all religions and ethnicities, bringing together students from all over the world to address current global issues.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks AFTER the event?

  •      I want this hackathon to be the first of many. In today’s globalized world, there will be infinite opportunities to be involved in worldwide issues. I want VHacks to be a conversation starter and awareness driver, inspiring youth to become aware and get involved. I would love for VHacks to incite a call for responsibility in the next generation.

Mohib Jafri— Hacking Experience Team, Judging Lead
Mohib (Harvard College ’21) is an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science concentrator from Los Angeles, CA. Mohib is a Milken’s Scholar under the Milken Institute and in his spare time enjoys woodworking and 3D printing.

What you are doing to help organize the event?

  •      I’m helping on the internal side of judging: I organize the selection of judges from our wonderful mentors, how they judge our teams, and ultimately, how we decide who wins the hackathon. I will also coordinate the final presentations.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks DURING the event?

  •      While my job is to make sure the logistics of the conference run smoothly and that hackers have the time of their lives, I’m really excited to meet some of the best technologists in the world. I have so much to learn from being surrounded by such innovative, forward-thinking people.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks AFTER the event?

  •      What’s cool about VHacks is that the event does not end after March 2018. VHacks begins an important discussion about technology helping the humanitarian sector— a discussion that will far outlive the 36-hour hackathon. I can’t wait to see some of our 24 teams taking their VHacks prototype and applying it to the real world to help real people.

Anita Mehrotra, Director of Senior Guest Experiences
Anita is a second-year student at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, Anita was a data scientist at Accenture’s R&D Tech Labs in the Bay, and BuzzFeed in Manhattan, where she built real-time machine learning and AI tools. If you can’t find Anita, she’s probably at the beach, riding SoulCycle, or eating. Her favorite language is Python and she has a soft spot for shoes.

What you are doing to help organize the event?

  •       As a member of the Partners team, it’s my responsibility to bring in panelists and keynote speakers to highlight the role that technology plays in enabling integration, collaboration, and communication across different groups of people.
  •       I strongly believe that data science and tech play a role in bigger, societal problems: it’s motivated my career path so far, and was the main reason why I moved to the east coast. VHacks struck me as a super cool opportunity to be a part of helping to move the needle at that intersection, or at the least, spreading the word about how powerful this idea can be.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks DURING the event?

  •      The problems that we’re posing to the hackers are BIG, and hard. I wish I was hacking! It’s the first hackathon that has resonated with me at a personal level, and I think it’s pretty incredible that we have such a diverse range of participants and organizers who have come together to work on this.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks AFTER the event?

  •      Firstly, I’d love for this to be the beginning of many future VHacks. Even more importantly, there’s potential for the participants’ solutions to turn into something more – a product, a feature, an R&D group… something sustainable. To me, even the possibility of this is thrilling.

Vasi Karkantzos, Strategy Director
Vasilis is a second year student at Harvard Business School and a former McKinsey consultant. He is a member of the Venture Incubator Program of the Harvard Innovation Lab, has cofounded a start-up and has VC and start-up experience in San Francisco and London. Prior to HBS and McKinsey he was a corporal in the Greek Navy, where he managed multiple soldiers, and a civil engineer in Greece and the United Arab Emirates.

What you are doing to help organize the event?

  •      I am helping identify and partner with prominent tech companies and institutions to (a) gather the required funds to organize and execute the event, (b) recruit top-notch professionals as mentors, speakers and judges for the event.
  •      I am inspired by the Catholic Church leveraging VHacks to pave the way for other institutions to be forward-looking organizations that leverage technology and innovative approaches to do social good. I believe it is crucial to leverage the funds and power of such institutions to alleviate chronic social problems.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks DURING the event?

  •      Getting world-class speakers to educate and inspire the teams across the event’s three thematic areas. I’m also excited to see our rockstar student teams get excellent mentoring and guidance to create high impact and high potential ventures.

What are you excited about achieving through VHacks AFTER the event?

  •      Seeing ideas that were born in the hackathon (award-winning or not) slowly transform into ventures, start gaining traction, and achieving social impact. I’m also excited to follow the career paths of our student-participants and the social impact they have. Making VHacks a yearly tradition would be great, as would be promoting similar events to other institutions around the world.

 

The Harbus will be attending the VHacks event that is taking place from March 8 – 11th in the Vatican City. Stay tuned for coverage updates from the event on Instagram and Twitter @theharbushbs, and a behind the scenes piece after the event. Thoughts? We want to hear from you. Get in touch at [email protected]. More information can be found at VHacks.org, on Instagram and Twitter @VHacks2018 or by contacting [email protected].


Pippa Lamb (MBA ‘18) worked for the British government in Beijing and Shanghai before transitioning to J.P. Morgan in London and Hong Kong, focusing on tech and consumer investing. Pippa is a Fulbright Scholar under the British Friends of Harvard Business School Program. You can follow her on Twitter @pippalamb.