Georgetown’s team of computer-savvy undergraduate and graduate students placed first in their category at the inaugural hackathon at the Vatican, VHacks, which took place in Rome on March 8 through 11.
The event consisted of a 36-hour period of coding to create and pitch a solution to a social problem posed by one of the three categories of the competition. The goal was to use technology to address issues related to the three themes, to promote cooperation among students of diverse backgrounds and to encourage “value-based institutions” like universities to use technology to further their missions.
Lucy Obus (COL ’11, GRD ’18), Rushika Shekhar (GRD ’18), Yanchen Wang (GRD ’19), Roisin McLoughlin (COL ’19) and Jake Glass (SFS ’20) were tasked with creating a solution under the category of “Migrants and Refugees.”
The team designed and created a web app that aims to help refugees in European countries secure leases. The team designed the app to combat the lack of affordable housing, which many refugees face in countries like Italy. Often, refugees have difficulty finding places to stay because they lack credit in their new country.
Glass said this kind of app would be especially helpful for individuals who have lower or nonexistent credit scores because of their refugee status, and are thus not seen as fiscally responsible.
“We’re specifically targeting those who can’t find a lease because they might not be seen as fiscally responsible enough by landlords,” Glass said. “We try to establish that credit history using an algorithm similar to that which banks use to create a credit score, except that score is based on sort of lower level transactions to prove financial responsibility and competency on the part of the refugees.”
Obus said he was inspired by an interaction with a refugee who was unable to find housing.
“We were pretty dumbfounded in the last conversations we had the night before the hackathon,” Obus said. “A roof over your head is everything.”
The Georgetown team’s participation was the culmination of a campuswide effort to send these students to Rome. Several on-campus institutes contributed to this effort, such as the Maker Hub, the Community, Culture and Technology Program, the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, and the Global Human Development Program.
Don Undeen, manager of the Maker Hub at Lauinger Library; Holly Wise, a visiting professor for the Global Human Development Program; and Ryan Gillis, the grants manager for the School of Foreign Service also travelled to the Vatican with the team.
Undeen acted as one of the 40 on-site mentors to support students as they created their projects. He is also a member of the Vatican Art and Technology Council, and said the event, though it was held in the Vatican, is relevant even for students who are not Catholic.
“Modern, western, technology-oriented culture is really connecting with Pope Francis’ message of tenderness, environmental stewardship, and welcoming people, taking a skeptical look at some aspects of capitalism, human values,” Undeen said. “Those types of folks are looking at the Vatican and saying, ‘even if we don’t share your faith, we agree with a lot of the stuff you’re saying.’”
Undeen also said the university resources provided to the students allowed them to leave the experience with significant takeaways.
“We got the students lots of opportunities to meet with refugee communities and meet with people who work on the ground with refugee communities,” Undeen said. “So they understand when designing something that it’s not just a pie in the sky, but you’ve got real people in real situations that are going to be affected by this.”
Obus agreed that the assistance from the university also gave the team enough freedom to design their app.
“We were really lucky to have the support system from Georgetown,” Obus said. “They offered us support, and they also let us do our own work. I think it was a phenomenal testament to the way that Georgetown is committed to empowering their students and trusting their students to get it done.”
Undeen hopes the team’s success will generate interest from the Georgetown community in more events like this one, including Make48, a “makeathon” in which participants have 48 hours to create a marketable product, which is set to take place in August.
“We so far have 100 percent win ratings,” Undeen said.