VHACKS 2018

When I first entered UCL with bare programming experience, I was confused by my identity of being a programmer. Some of my classmates are talented programmers who always gather to learn the latest web frameworks, have heated discussions on which language is the best and talk about null pointer exception on the way to the next lecture. “cool” is the word they always use. In fact, I could hardly join the conversation and relate it to myself. What’s so cool about it? Why would I care? Why am I here?

My view for technology tended to be pretty pessimistic too. In my opinion, most of the technological advancements generated consumer needs instead of filling in the demand. They bring about instant satisfaction without breaking the overall equilibrium of happiness and sadness of an individual. Furthermore, I fear that humanity is not improving as a whole as technology is in the hands of the more powerful, trapped in their own bubble of trying out what they believe to be “cool”, and what they believe to be good for the humanity. This perspective is certainly myopic in retrospect, but I still have some doubts even today.

Recently, I participated in VHACKS, the first Hackathon in Vatican’s history. VHACKS was inspired by Pope Francis’s speech where he mentioned that “how wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion.” 120 students from 57 universities gathered at Vatican to work on themes including social inclusion, interfaith dialogue and migrant and refugees. St Peters’s Square

My team consists of people from diverse backgrounds to work on using technology to enhance social inclusion. We designed an App for the homeless where they can use their digital currency to get food and shelter. To earn more digital currency, they have to go to training courses which equip them with skills to find meaningful work and be integrated into society. Each homeless person also has a unique digital identity, which solves the problem of having no paper identifications. I was really proud of my teammates who used blockchain to create the cryptocurrency. I was not able to help much with the programming as I am not familiar with Swift, the language we used to develop the IOS app. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot from my teammates and stayed awake for almost 36 hours to complete the task.

Watching the presentations from different teams as and the panel discussions on technology as an accelerator in modern society was a real inspiration. I like one team’s idea of using Microsoft HoloLens to place an emphasis on each character in the text. In this way, they can help dyslexia patients in reading. Despite many exciting applications of Virtual Reality, I was always wary of it before. It was certainly a “cool” technology, but would we lose the sense of reality and be trapped in our own hallucination? But now, I see the vast potential of VR for educational purposes.

A clear message was conveyed: it is possible to use technology to empower the needy. I felt fortunate to be born in this age where immense opportunities in the tech industry lie before me. I hope one day I can harness the power of technology and use it to generate economic growth for all.

When I reached Kings Cross in London at night, a dark shadow appeared before me. “Could you give me some money? I need 15 pounds to have a bed.” said a man in shabby clothes. It was almost 12 am and I increased my walking speed.

In China, I hardly ever see anyone sleeping rough. In Singapore, the government provides affordable housing and sleeping on the street is probably forbidden by law. However, I was really surprised that there are so many homeless people when I first arrived in London. Some are the real homeless and a cup of hot chocolate would make their day. Some spend most of the money on alcohol and drugs.

When I was in year 1, I always gave all the coins I had to whoever approached me. There used to be a lady who told me she was pregnant and beaten badly by her husband. She was begging for the entire day for a place to stay. Yet, 2 months later she was still at the same section of the road, telling me the same story and there was no trace of pregnancy. I also met a man who threw away all the 1 cent coins I gave to him blatantly in front of me and only keeping the 1-pound coins. I could still remember the crispy sound of the coins hitting the floor. I picked them up and put them back in my pocket. For me, every cent I spent came from the tax payers from the society who sponsored my studies here. As I was perplexed by different reasons and mentalities of people who failed to live a decent life, the solution, especially a tech-related one had never come through my mind.

“Excuses me, could you please not ignore me and at least say no?” As my mind drifted away, I did not realize that the man was still waiting for my response. “Sorry.” I said. “That’s ok” and he left. I thought silence implied a tacit rejection, and was surprised to find out that saying it explicitly made him feel better. Perhaps, it was the social acceptance or the sense of existence he still cared about.

It is certainly a wonderful hackathon idea to have an IOS app prototype for the homeless. However, the statistics of most homeless people having a smart phone was insufficient to justify whether they would really care about such an app, needless to mention the countless practical concerns before putting such an idea into production. Social problems are highly complex. Any technological solution should address psychological woes of the people in adversity besides serving as a tool for convenience.

VHACKS is just a starting point. I am glad that I am no longer confused by my identity and sceptic of technology’s potential. I will keep an observant eye and empathetic heart along the way. I hope one day I can work in a diverse team with scientists, tech experts, policy makers and social workers to use technology in a meaningful way and make a tangible impact in certain communities.

My hackathon team:)

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