Cortex, CBI for CERN

Social, UX/UI



CORTEX is the resulting project of the CBI Programm at CERN.

CORTEX is a decentralized and distributed network that keeps safe and verifies individual academic records. CORTEX is a private blockchain with only an academic purpose, in which the courses approved and degrees obtained by a student are recorded as transactions in the student personal profile. Using blockchain we can create a decentralized and reliable system, and by using biometrics technologies we can create a paperless system which is always available to the users.

The inspiration for our project is the true story of two brothers Mohammad and Mahmoud, Syrians refugees whom we have interviewed during our research. After a long and tough journey, they are now living in Spain. With great efforts Mohammad managed to bring his academic certificates to Spain. This allowed him to find a decent job in his field of expertise and apply for a master degree. However, Mahmoud couldn’t bring his academic certificates as he was in the middle of his studies when he had to flee Syria. Today he is not able to finish his studies and find a decent job as he lost everything and can’t prove his academic qualifications to resume his life. It may sound unbelievable, but today in the 21st-century people can lose the power to use their education, and one of the reasons is the current anachronic system of educational certificates based on paper and middle-men verification.

We envision CORTEX as a sustainable nonprofit organization. The profits generated are first reinvested on maintaining the system, while the remaining is reimbursed to the academic institutions that support the system as computing nodes. Our main objective is to onboard prestigious institutions for the first three years and demonstrates the value proposition of using CORTEX, we will then move to onboarding group of institutions and eventually envision CORTEX to be a global protocol.

What is CBI?

Challenge Based Innovation is a 4-6 months programme where teams of university students develop projets that solve complex societal problems, inspired by technological ideas that come from instrumentation development or basic research at CERN.

In CBI student teams work with CERN, one of the world’s leading research centres in particle physics, for the purpose of making disruptive innovation for societal impact.

Here students apply their hard skills to challenging projects, in an entrepreneurial setting. They work in a multidisciplinary team, develop their critical thinking and get hands-on to make their ideas real through prototyping and testing.

Initial Challenge Definition

At the beginning of the program we received a very difficult but beautiful challenge named “Empowering Women and Youth in developing countries through STEM education and entrepreneurship.” The challenge is based on two sustainable development goals “quality education” and “gender equality.” However, since the beginning we knew we don’t want to get restricted with only two goals, our intention was to combine few others. We knew it would be a daunting task but we felt proud to be able to work on such global problem.

The 21st century we live in is not perfect. There are many countries that cannot provide quality education to their population. And what is even more worrying is that women in many countries around the world do not have same rights or access to education as men because of the culture or other circumstances. At this point we knew we must face the challenge carefully and responsibly and consider different traditions, cultures and mentalities. We knew we must be very open minded and consider and understand the challenge from all perspectives.

Early research, first overview:

In the early stages team we started to investigate and understand the challenge. The Ideas we came up during the first week following the design thinking methodology were an inspiration and reference point throughout the entire journey. We realized communication and brainstorming were crucial factors for better understanding of the problem.

We started by understanding the design thinking process and applying it for our challenge. This firstly led to brainstorming of the topic “Empowering Woman and Youth in Developing Countries through STEM and entrepreneurship”. Team focused on woman as a subject and investigated different stages and obstacles woman face in both developing and developed countries. We have created a timeline of woman‘s life and defined three critical milestones that impact her life and career. After extensive desktop research we have identified three crucial ages; the age range of 5-7, 16+ and 25+. In each age range, we defined different life situations.

IDEA 1: Mathagotchi

IDEA 2: Time Maker

IDEA 3: Skype Avatar


Since very beginning we knew that the scope of our challenge is very broad and the topic seemed to be very abstract and we realized we don’t have enough knowledge about such global problem. Therefore, each team member began to research about the challenge. Dealing with a task as broad as the one we were facing, with strict time constraints, meant making numerous decisions, under considerable uncertainty, knowing that equally attractive alternatives were being left behind. We understood that the problems vary depending on the culture, country etc., therefore the solution for empowerment would not be perceived the same in different locations.

The initial goal of the team was to make an impact, start very specifically but later to be able to scale it globally. Often, we had to face obstacles and uncertainties, but thanks to them we were able to move forward and solve them by talking with numerous stakeholders. However, thanks to the team’s spirit and drive, we were able to soon discover very interesting information we didn’t know before and as such we narrowed our research down to one specific persona.

Initially, we clearly focused on women and education. However, during the extensive deskop research we saw a potential within multiple users. Therefore, we decided to focus on six areas that drew our attention.

The focus areas were following:

During research, we found out that social stereotypes have great impact on girl perception in the future. Especially, when her role models (usually parents) behave according to the stereotypes.

Many girls in India drop out of school usually due to house chores, cultural stereotypes or financial instability. Most of them don’t have the support or the will to continue.

Problems: Parents have huge expectations from boys and encourage them to study. When it comes to girls, parents have no expectations and don’t want to take chances.

Refugees face personal crises when they flee their country and suddenly appear at refugee camp. Moving from camp to the new host country is very long process and therefore many of them might stay for several months, even years. However, many of them are young people that haven’t finished school and would like continue education. On the other hand, even refugees who have their degrees can’t use them as they are not valid in camps. Another problem is lack of common language at the camp.

Organization is working on skills development among youth in Gambia. They are mainly focusing on vocational train- ing and agricultural skill development.

Chinese school system is one of the strictest system in the world. Kids appear to be under enormous pressure when about to finish high school. The entire success and the future of the individual is based on big Chinese, national test, named Gao-Kao. The score of the test also distinguish social level. This is big problem for girls. Girls that get a low score, have problems to get married or get the job.

Women in developed countries are facing discrimination when it comes to higher job positons. Most of the companies refuse to hire women or give less salaries for women.

Understanding the problem:

In order to get closer understanding of the problem, team was jumping between ideas and fields of research in order to cover as much information as possible. After individual research done by each team member, we narrowed scope down to three areas. Since we already had higher knowledge on the problem, we were able to decide relevant direction for our next stage of the research.

Rounds of investigation:

Research Conclusion:

Our solution, CORTEX, is designed as a long-term project divided in 2 stages. The first phase is focused on empowering youth in general by giving them back the power to use their education. While the second phase will use the solution of stage 1 as the foundation to enable women in developing countries to have access to quality education.

FIGURE I. CORTEX phases and adoption

What is the problem? It may sound unbelievable, but today in the 21st century people can lose the power to use their education, and one of the reasons is the current anachronic system of educational certificates based on paper and middle-men verification. Nowadays, a paper is the only valid proof of academic background. If we lose it, eventually we could go back to our countries and get a new one. However, many people are not able to do so, meaning that they are unable to retrieve their academic credentials permanently.

One bold example is the true story of two brothers, Mohammad and Mahmoud, Syrians refugees that we interviewed during our research, who after a long and tough journey are now living in Spain. Mohammad managed, with great effort, to bring his academic certificates to Spain. This allowed him to find a decent job in his field of expertise and apply to a master degree. On the other hand, Mahmoud was about to graduate after 4 years of studies by the time he had to flee Syria. So, he could not bring any academic certificate. Today he is not able to finish his studies nor find a decent job. In terms of official education, he lost everything.

Therefore, Mahmoud needs to prove his academic qualifications to resume his life. The problem is that to do so he needs to get his academic certificates back in Syria, personally, which is almost impossible. Moreover, his refugee status forbids him to return to his country. This is not only wrong, but it is also extremely worrying, because the pres- ent problem of Mahmoud could be the problem of the future displaced people, a group that due to political, religious or climate change situations will grow from 65 million today to 150 million in 2050. And it is also very concerning because besides the extreme case of displaced people, the current system of academic certificates can affect any migrant in general, whose number will reach 334 million in 2050.

What are the current solutions? Mahmoud has 2 alternatives to solve his problem considering the impossibility to personally request his certificates in Syria. The first one is the black market, in which a member of his family would need to pay an “agent” for getting the paperwork done in the absence of Mahmoud. This is not only illegal, but risky and costly.

The second option is to apply for a European Qualifications Passport, a document that provides an assessment of the higher education qualifications based on available documentation and a structured interview (COE, 2017). The Council of Europe leads this program, and although is not available in Spain yet, it is expected that in 2018 it will be available at distance using online tools. Nevertheless, although the program could be a great help for many current refugees, it is hardly scalable if we consider that each process takes several weeks to be completed, and what it is more important, it requires up to 7 qualified people and 3 full working days to handle one single case. Putting this in the context of millions of people that may require it in the future, this solution will not be enough.

How can we solve it? Considering the problem and the restrictions of the current alternatives to solve it, we define our first objective as to provide future young refugees a technological tool that will allow them to prove their aca- demic qualifications no matter what situation or where they are. We are focusing on refugees despite knowing the problem also affects migrants, at some degree, it could affect everyone, because if we solve it for the extreme case i.e. people who lost not only their academic certificates, but also ID documents, or whose academic institutions are gone for good, we will solve it for everyone. And to do so, we aim to change the paradigm, leaving behind the current centralized certification system based on paper to adopt a decentralized and digital one.

What is our solution? CORTEX is a decentralized and distributed network that keeps safe and verifies individual academic records. To do so it uses blockchain and biometrics technologies. With these two together we can create a solution that considers the jobs that have to be done that our research, observation, and analysis of refugees as extreme case and the academic institutions as main users provided us: 

Figure II. Relevant features provided by blockchain and biometrics technologies

  • Paperless, a piece of paper cannot be the only way of proving academic background - Verifiable, meaning that middle men will not be needed anymore
  • Decentralized, no dependant on institutions location or situation
  • Secure
  • Proof of degrees, but also courses completed
  • Proof of ownership, even when a person lost his ID
  • Accessible from everywhere
  • Provide info about academic institution credentials
  • Simpler than current system in terms of steps required for verification
  • Peace of mind, It should work in the background, without requiring users to keep passwords or devices

How does CORTEX work? CORTEX is a private blockchain with only an academic purpose, in which the courses ap- proved and degrees obtained by the students are recorded as transactions in the students’ personal profile or ledger, and linked to their biometrics. The nodes of the network are the accredited academic institutions part of the block- chain. Some of them, the ones with the possibility to allocate the IT resources, will be also the miners, responsible for computing and adding the blocks.

User Journey:

1. When a student joins her first school, the academic institution creates a profile, and gets her fingerprints scanned and linked to this profile.

Figure III. Student registration.

2. During her period in the school, every course and subject will be recorded in the student’s profile and secured in the blockchain as a transaction.

Figure IV. Recording of academic credentials in the blockchain

3. Whenever a current or former student requires her academic records, she will be able to retrieve them from any institution part of the network, regardless of her location or documents in possession, just by giving her fingerprint as a proof of identity/ownership.

Figure V. Academic records request


Cortex is a blockchain based global network of academic institutions aiming to store academic records in a secure, reliable, distributed and permanent way. The students of institutions that are part of Cortex, will get their academic records into the system, and will be able to retrieve them using their fingerprint.

We are creating a private blockchain, this means that it can only be used the academic institutions (nodes) allowed to participate in it. Using blockchain technology makes our system distributed and permanent. It is distributed be- cause information of every academic record in the system is replicated in every node, and it’s permanent because blockchain ensures that once a piece of data has been accepted in the blockchain, it cannot be modified by any node of the network.

Each academic record of a user (student) is recorded to the blockchain as a transaction from the issuing academic institution to the user. Transactions in Cortex are verified thanks to digital signatures. If a node wants to issue an academic record to a specific user, it will create a cryptographically signed transaction that will be broadcasted to the rest of the network. The other nodes can verify that the transaction is coming from a certain institution using the digital signature.

When users need to retrieve their academic records, they just need to access the system through their biometrics, which for the moment would be the fingerprint due to its reliability and low cost. Firstly, once the students enroll to a university, they need to provide their fingerprint. The institution will then register all the student records into the system. Therefore, when a new user is created, his fingerprint is provided to cipher the information in Cortex. That means they scan the fingerprint with a sensor compatible with the system and its array of features is stored (it can be seen as the hash value of someone’s fingerprint).

The sensor being compatible means that the features extracted and represented are the same in every sensor part of the system so as to be able to the match and retrieve the records in all the institutions part of Cortex. The array of features stored in the system will be used to identify a user with his/her fingerprint but also to generate a key which will give access to the private key associated to a particular student. This private key will allow to read the data ciphered in the blockchain with a public key. To make sure that an unauthorized individual cannot enter the system, the function that generates the key that protects the private key of a user is a secret. Finally, the private key of the user will give access to the records stored in the blockchain and protected with the public key.

Final prototype: Our goal with our prototype of Cortex was to show how a university with students registered in the system could input records into secure and immutable system and how the user would be able to retrieve his/her records in any other academic institution using his/her biometrics, which cannot be lost. Therefore, we could prove that our idea for never losing our academic records is powerful and feasible.

Our demo consisted of two parts. In the first one, we showed how a user can register and input an academic record to Cortex in one computer. In the second part, the user’s academic records were retrieved just using the user’s fin- gerprint in another computer.

Hardware Material:

- Adafruit optical fingerprint sensor - Arduino UNO
- 2 LEDs (red and green)
- 2 resistors

- Cables

Both computers were running a local server, an Ethereum Testnet client, and a Python script listening to a fingerprint scanner that was attached to the computer through an Arduino with a USB cable. The user interacted with Cortex through a website powered by the local server.

The web server was built using Node.js and Express (a Node.js web application framework). The website had 3 basic functionalities:

Registering a user:

Adding academic records of a user to the system:

Reading all the academic records of a user:

In all those 3 cases, the user had to be authenticated by fingerprint:

Do you want to know more about implementation, business model and data of the research? Read the whole report here -->

Many thanks to the teaching team and Ideasquare crew, as well as to all the people whom we have interviewed. Special thanks to Harri, Pablo and Markus, for the commitment and willingness to help and contribute to the project.

And a special mention to Mahmoud and Mohammad el-Gazawi, their story made CORTEX possible.