A bright weekend: THE Port develops a better solution for the “Children of the Night”

THE Port Hackathon took place at CERN and Geneva’s Campus Biotech from 2 to 4 October. Among the various prototypes presented at the final event was a novel solution for the special mask that children suffering from xeroderma pigmentosum have to wear to reduce their risk of getting skin cancer. The whole initiative was triggered by an article published in one of the summer issues of the Bulletin.


Developing and testing the mask prototype at THE Port Hackathon, 2015. (Images: Andrey Loginov, Pierre Freyermuth, Antonio Bellotta/ THE Port)


“The improvements are really substantial and have made the president of the French Children of the Night Association really happy!” says Andy Butterworth from the team that worked on developing a prototype for a new mask during THE Port Hackathon. In his “normal” professional life, Andy is a radio-frequency expert working in the Beams department. During the hackathon, he worked with colleagues from CERN, the University of Lausanne and the University of Geneva, and even with a chemical engineer from Australia who happened to read about the project and made a short stopover in Geneva to participate.

The challenge for the team was to build a more comfortable mask for children who can only leave their homes at night when the light is not dangerous for their ultra-sensitive skin. Special equipment, including a mask, has been developed to protect them from UV exposure, but it is uncomfortable and very expensive. Thanks to THE Port Hackathon, a new, more comfortable mask will soon be available to them. “We worked in collaboration with parents and children who helped us identify the most urgent improvements for the mask,” explains Andy. “The new prototype has a much more effective ventilation system, which is more comfortably positioned at the top of the mask and which ensures automatic temperature and humidity control; the prototype also has better acoustics for hearing and speaking.”

Astronaut Luca Parmitano tests a mask used by children suffering from xeroderma pigmentosum.

Even though the inspiring hackathon is over, the team will continue to work on improving the mask. “The feedback we received from the parents and children was extremely positive but we still need to work on reducing the weight of the mask,” says Andy. “We will now go back to all the members of the team and start working on a better mechanical design and lighter materials. We also need to work on the safety of the whole system so that the children do not get injured if they fall while wearing the mask.”

The same group of volunteers also worked on producing a more sensitive and less expensive photon detector that children could wear to be able to see whether or not it is safe for them to take the mask off. If you are interested in joining the teams, do not hesitate to get in touch with THE Port.

THE Port Hackathon: projects and prospects​

THE Port Hackathon started in 2014, and in its second year brought together 134 participants (about twice as many as last year) from 42 different countries to work on 13 projects. The experience of last year confirms that most of the projects continue after the hackathon. Some of them have already made the headlines. Among the projects tackled this year (only 13 projects could be selected out of the 54 proposed, mostly by NGOs and international organisations), there was also one aimed at improving food bags so that they can be safely dropped from airplanes and another one aimed at making it simpler for people to find their way around complex building systems, such as hospitals. You can find a complete list of projects here.  

by Antonella Del Rosso