‘Hackathon’ preaches use of technology

Dominican Father Anselm Ramelow called the first one a “digital Pentecost.”

On June 5-6, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco launched the second Catholic Hackathon, an intense 24-hour brainstorming session with the goal of creating novel ways to share the Faith using technology. While hackathons happen regularly in the Bay Area, this event is the first one with a Catholic evangelizing focus, organizers said.

The term “hackathon” is derived from two words: “hack” referring to an amateur who does something for the love of it, and “marathon.”

More than 50 developers, designers and “ideators” ate Greek food and pitched and developed ideas in teams. (See sidebar for the two apps that were chosen as winners.)

“The idea is that over the weekend, there ought to be something that works,” even though the product is likely incomplete, said Ivi Fandino, one of the organizers of the hackathon.

‘New way to preach’

The goal of the 2015 Catholic Hackathon was “Using Tech to Preach: Moving Hearts to the Gospel.” The judges were all members of OPTIC, the collaboration of the Order of Preachers for Technology, Information and Communication, and included Father Bryan Kromholtz, a Dominican systematic theologian; Charles Axel-Dein, a software developer for a major startup; and Fandino, a designer who has an independent studio in San Francisco.

Last year’s winner was PreachBack, an app that invites users to engage with priests via a feedback loop, letting Massgoers offer comments on the homily they heard at Mass and to dialogue about ideas.

“That is typically the kind of project that does come from the people of God,” said Father Eric Salobir, the Dominicans’ international coordinator for digital media, who flew to California for the hackathon this year. Father Salobir, a Frenchman, was appointed last year to a committee to reform Vatican media efforts.

The Catholic hackathon in San Francisco was the brainchild of a group led by Dominican Father Emmanuel Taylor, parochial vicar at St. Dominic’s. It springs from Father Taylor’s time as the West Coast organizer of the worldwide Dominican order’s new media initiative, OPTIC, of which Father Salobir is founder.

“I want to see how we can recreate this in other countries,” Father Salobir said of the Catholic hackathon. “I hope to organize one in Nigeria. I think they are ready for that.”

OPTIC was founded to preach the Faith using technology. The Dominican order actively looks to collaborate with the laity in the mission of the Church, and the Order of Preachers, instituted almost 800 years ago, seeks effective ways to spread the Gospel today, said Fandino, an industrial designer.

“This is our charism, to preach, and there’s a new way to preach to this generation — especially through social media and online — so we are trying to find good ways to do that, because there is so much negative material on the Internet,” said Dominican Brother Michael James Rivera, webmaster and chair of the Western Dominican province’s digital media and communications committee.

“I think this is so Vatican II. We interact with the people. It is like Liturgy 2.0,” Father Salobir said.

Community outreach

The hackathon is just the first project of OPTIC West, Father Taylor said. The OPTIC approach is energizing priests and the laity to think outside the preaching box, Father Salobir said, in a time when people often do not approach ideas of faith through the traditional hierarchal organization of parishes and dioceses.

“We want to turn the Internet into a positive tool,” Brother Michael James said. “We want it to be a place where people can come and ask questions and find answers about faith, about morals and about the Church — to find the truth, to find Jesus Christ.”

Sharing faith through one-on-one interactions is key, Brother Michael James said, “but so many people are turning to their smartphones and their desktops, so we have to go there as well.”

OPTIC is international, and Father Salobir said he is part of a European group that has also invented an app, Doms-Tours, which is “a free app which turns your smartphone into a tour guide,” and it will work initially guiding visitors through Dominican churches in Rome, France and Spain, Father Salobir said.

In the case of Doms-Tours and PreachBack, the Dominicans will offer the apps free to users, he said. “I hope PreachBack will be worldwide in a while, as Doms-Tours is already becoming worldwide,” Father Salobir said. “If the Church really wants to be Catholic, universal, we need to do that.”

Beta-testing on PreachBack will start this summer with preachers at St. Dominic’s. “There is much support from the Dominican Order and St. Dominic’s Catholic Church,” Father Taylor said.

While the technology is vital, Father Taylor said, it is also a work in progress for the faith community. “This is a grassroots thing. It is really about us working together.”

Axel-Dein agreed. The hackathon schedule included prayer, overnight Eucharistic adoration and an opportunity to attend Mass, as well as good food, because, Axel-Dein said, it is about “the product, but also the process: using technology to preach.”

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.