From March 8th to 11th, 120 students from around the world participated in a 36-hour hackathon at the Vatican in Rome, aptly named VHacks. The Vatican hackathon was the first of its kind and encouraged students to tackle challenges in three categories: Migrants and Refugees, Social Inclusion, and Interfaith Dialogue. Inclusivity was the theme of the day, and that was reflected by the demographics of the hackers who represented over 60 universities, various socioeconomic backgrounds, and multiple religions. In addition, 45% of the participants were women, a notable feat in a sector known for being male-dominated. The Global Human Development Program was proud to be represented at VHacks by second-year student Rushika Shekhar, and supported by Professor Holly Wise.
For the Hoya Haxa team - Roisin McLoughlin, programmer (C’19), Jake Glass, programmer (SFS’20), Lucy Obus, designer (C’11, G’18), Rushika Shekhar, global development content specialist (G’18) and Yanchen Wang, programmer (G’19) - VHacks was an opportunity to combine their different experiences and pool their knowledge to create a solution for refugees that is needed and feasible. “I got to learn from other Georgetown students – undergraduates and graduates from different disciplines. The cross-department collaboration really made the team richer and helped us develop a better product” enthused Rushika. “Recruiting the participants from a large applicant pool across the university; harvesting mentors and subject-matter experts across many Georgetown departments; and working with the students on diagnostics to discover their strengths, set their intentions, build trust, and gel as a team took place over the weeks leading up to the VHack. It was so critical to setting their intentions and achieving alignment -- and really paid off!” shared Holly Wise, faculty advisor.
The winning product in the Migrants and Refugees category, Credit/Ability was developed by the Georgetown team to allow refugees to build the financial credibility necessary to prove reliability to landlords, employers, and others, without access to the traditional financial credit system. The innovative app was inspired by the stories of several refugees from West Africa who had started earning income and had enough money to pay rent, but were denied by several landlords due to their lack of credit history. The app solves this problem by creating a credibility score tailored to refugee contexts, one that is risk-conscious while being compassionate to context. An algorithm builds the credibility scores by collecting users’ short-term employment, income, and payment histories, while churches and community backers act as guarantors to co-sign leases and help refugees establish a financial record. “It was a challenge designing something for a population that we’re not a part of, and shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of,” Rushika explained. “But thanks to what I’ve learned at GHD, I was able to question our assumptions and think about the actual usability of the product.”
Generous external donors connected the VHack team to faith-based organizations for ground-truthing and as potential guarantors to housing finance for refugees. The lectures and workshops at VHacks also helped students think through the challenges each category presented before they then built their products. Once the projects had been judged by the panel of corporate sponsors and Vatican officials, the winning teams of each category were presented with $2,000 and Microsoft MR Goggles. Duo Collegare, an online platform that connects volunteers and organizations, won first place in the Interfaith Dialogue category while Co.unity, a crowdfunded job board for the homeless, was awarded the top position in the Social Inclusion category.
The impact of these ideas will go far beyond those three days in Rome. “Bringing this to life is the hard work going forward” says Steve Cashin, whose family is supporting the effort. Over the next few weeks, the teams will submit their presentations to the corporate sponsors of the hackathon such as Google, Microsoft and Salesforce. Some projects may be accepted into the incubation and acceleration programs at those organizations, giving the products the opportunity to be launched globally. The prize money plays an instrumental role in this process, as it will help the winning teams refine their pitches and leverage interest from outside partners to bring them to life. “We are thrilled the Georgetown team won, we are even more excited about the commitment to continue building this out, forming partnerships with implementing organizations and launching this solution,” says Amy Goldman, GHR Foundation another generous donor to the Hoya Haxa team.
Team members acknowledged the massive support received from the university, and were particularly thankful for the presence of Georgetown staff members at VHacks who provided support throughout the experience. The Georgetown team was supported by the university library’s Maker Hub, the Global Human Development Program, the Institute for the Study of International Migration, the Computer Science department, the Massive Data Institute, the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative, the Center for Social Justice, the Global Social Enterprise Initiative, the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, the Provost’s Office, the Jesuit community, and the Communications Culture and Technology Program.