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Of Hackathons and Social Inclusion

Vhacks: The first ever Vatican Hackathon

The online IT review platform GADGETS has carried an interview with me about my experience at the first ever Vatican Hackathon in Rome titled: ‘VHacks‘. Below is a transcript of the interview questions however you can read the full interview here: http://gadgetsmalta.com/news/maltese-mentor-judge-vatican-hackathon/

Gadgets Malta - Gege Gatt

Gadgets Malta – Gege Gatt

This was quite a momentous event. Can you tell us how you first heard of plans to host this hackathon in the Vatican and how you got involved?

The organizing team (composed of three co-chairmen from Harvard University, the Lateran University and the OPTIC Network) were looking for mentors with a proven background in technology, entrepreneurship, law and philosophy. They asked me to join other selected mentors which flew-in from all over the world. Mentors worked in teams of two and my fellow-mentor was the Senior Vice President of Salesforce, Paolo Bergamo who flew in from San Franciso – and was an absolute scream.

What was achieved at VHacks? Can you give us an idea of what took place at the Vatican last week?

This was the first-ever hackathon at the Vatican which is itself an achievement. Combining the words “hacking” and “marathon”, a hackathon is a sprint-like event in which multi-disciplinary teams (including programmers, designers, project managers, scientists and AI engineers) collaborate to create solutions under a time constraint.

This global event brought together innovators of all faiths and ethnicities to address three specific themes:

  • Social Inclusion: To encourage solidarity by restoring human-centric thinking and values in our increasingly digital world.
  • Interfaith Dialogue: To support open communication between individuals and organizations representing differing faiths to create mutual understanding and constructive cooperation.
  • Migrants & Refugees: To strengthen, support, and mobilize resources for migrants and refugees to assist them with relocation and integration.

The event was a true celebration of all cultures and beliefs, bringing together the world’s brightest students with diverse academic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

We have seen that you have mentored teams at VHacks. Can you tell us what this consisted of?

I mentored a number of students and also judged the specific theme of Migrants and Refugees.

Mentoring is a hugely rewarding exercise as it’s a two-way activity in which both parties learn from the other.

My personal mentoring style is one in which I provide a mental framework within which students learn how to ask the right questions. This is an approach of discovery which eventually leads to the right answers.

Most teams dive into coding right away and, before long, get completely immersed in a project with very loose focus, too many features, and that one seemingly unfixable bug in the code. This is where mentors come in. We help students bring out the best idea and challenge them to create a world-changing concept and not just lines of code. Mentos are experts with years of real-world experience and we condense our knowledge into logical methods which allow students to make the most of their 36 hours of hacking.

What did all the students you mentored have in common?

They didn’t sleep! Most students were so immersed in the challenge that they entirely relinquished sleep or rest.

The level of passion and commitment to the cause was really impressive.

Other than that, I felt that all students shared a common purpose: to change the world through relentless optimism and the intelligent use of technology. They are truly brilliant and have diverse international experience in IT; some worked at NASA (one of my students was an intern-engineer in NASA’s jet propulsion design department), others at Google or Microsoft. This gives students a huge knowledge horizon which coupled with their ambition, makes them tremendously interesting people.

When it came to judging, what were some of the things that put one team ahead of the other?

The judging criteria were pre-set and extremely detailed.

We broadly judged three elements which when present put one team ahead of the other:

  • The Impact: Here we determine whether the problem the students chose to solve was urgent and relevant. Then we assessed whether the proposed solution offered adequate solvency and whether such solution could scale globally.
  • The Technology: Here we reviewed whether the solution presented was of appropriate technical complexity and whether it contained traces of innovation. We also assessed its execution and code-framework.
  • The Viability: Here we assessed the solution’s operating model to determine whether it is economically sustainable and is built on a clear action plan to take it forward over time.

What was it like, being around so many gifted students from around the world from universities like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

It was exhilarating.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer and I had 120 brilliant dreamers around me at all times. They reached within themselves and found the strength, patience and passion to reach for the stars to change the world. Seeing that happen is a gift.

After attending VHacks, a hackathon aimed towards social good, would you say this should become a more regular event? Are these gatherings crucial to solving some our worlds problems?

I believe that people in ICT, like myself and yourself, have a duty to ensure that technology is being shaped by positive values. As we approach more complex areas in cognitive science such as Artificial Intelligence this becomes an even more pressing necessity as the choices we make will have a direct impact on humanity (Nick Bostrom’s book ‘SuperIntelligence’ is a stark reminder of this) . We must ensure that there is consensus on the ethical framework we use to grow our technical tools.

Hackathons are an excellent opportunity to humanize technology through value-driven design. Superficially their goal appears to be code-development (which does indeed occur), but their true major benefit is to touch the hearts and minds of students with a burning passion to make the world a better place through technology. This is a noble thing and should be lauded and repeated.

 

Some of the photos are courtesy of Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league.

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