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MIT students heading to Rome for first ever Vatican hackathon

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For centuries Vatican City has opened its doors to tourists, pilgrims, even diplomatic envoys, but next month the seat of the Catholic Church welcomes a new kind of visitor: hackers.

The inaugural VHacks runs March 8-11, with roughly 120 students from universities around the world participating in the event. Among them will be Neil Gokhlay, MBA '19.

"I'm excited to connect with other students across different courses at MIT and work together to solve some of the interesting and impactful problems that [VHacks] is focusing on, namely, refugees and migrants, interfaith dialogue, and social inclusion," Gokhlay said.

The hackathon isn't specifically connected to the Catholic Church, nor do students have to be Catholic to participate. But the hackathon's themes do include interfaith dialogue, along with social inclusion, and migrants and refugees.

"This is not just for the church," said Sophie Liao, MBA '18, and member of the VHacks media team. "This is more about breaking boundaries. Everyone is a migrant, everyone should be involved in this discussion no matter what country they come from."

The mission of VHacks, according to the event website, is to address global issues like the refugee crisis; promote collaboration among different academic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds; and encourage "value-based institutions to embrace technology to further their missions."

While this is the first event of its kind at Vatican City, using technology to address more than just science isn't a new thing for the sovereign state's most famous resident. In a TED Talk last year, Pope Francis suggested how "wonderful it would be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion."

The Vatican's Secretariat for Communication and think tank Optic are co-organizing the event. MIT and Harvard University students are also helping to coordinate the event.

"Optic is a project of the Human Technology Foundation, a nonprofit organization working on an implementation of disruptive technologies for the common good," said the Rev. Eric Salobir, Optic president, in an email to MIT.

Liao said about 500 students from around the world and from a variety of religions applied for spots in the hackathon.

The MIT Innovation Initiative — a cross-school effort to promote innovation and entrepreneurship — put out the local call for the applications, conducted the interviews, and put the MIT team together, said Terri Park, spokeswoman for the initiative.

"Our goal was to create a diverse interdisciplinary team with students who demonstrated real interest, commitment, and the ability to creatively problem-solve and align with the mission of the Vatican Hack and its goal of leveraging technology and innovation to come up with solutions that will help the world," Park said in an email. 

Gokhlay said in the fall he'd been clicking on just about everything, looking for something to broaden his experience.

"I'd never done a hackathon. I'd never done anything religiously themed," he said.

Gokhlay said during his application process he was asked to pitch an idea to help migrants and refugees, a request similar to what the student teams will be asked to do at the hackathon. His idea was to make it easier to share information about a host country that might seem obvious — like dress codes or where to look for a job — but isn't always readily available to a refugee. "It's a way to see them as human, not as a group that you can just put into one bucket (or under one label)," Gokhlay said. "There are so many obvious differences on the surface like skin color, language, or religion, but if people find an organized way to meet refugees, there's always connections you can find with people."

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