ActionTrack as a part of participatory budget data collection
The City of Helsinki youth services performs participatory budget planning for young people called RuutiBudjetti as a part of the city’s youth work. Its purpose is to include young people in making decisions about the activities and services in their residential area. Ideas are collected from young people in various phases of the process so that as many young people as possible can participate in developing recreational and youth work services as well as the community in general. This year we used ActionTrack, a mobile app that enables the building of custom activities for users, for the first time to collect data for the participatory budget of the Vuosaari area.
Data was collected the previous year by having discussions between the instructors and a class of students and then having the pupils write down their thoughts on paper. This year we preferred to use a mobile platform over a paper form because we felt that using the application would be more engaging in getting 7th and 8th graders to participate and to answer the questions during the data collection phase. The platform also seemed to offer more diverse ways of motivating young people to participate with enthusiasm. Inspiring and encouraging young people to participate in their communities is a central task and challenge of regional youth work.
ActionTrack is a platform that consists of a licensable web tool and a free-to-use mobile application. You can create and manage your custom activities and their visual look using the web tool. Using ActionTrack requires no programming skills and the license includes a manual that provides easy access to instructions about creating activities, for instance. You can create ActionTrack activities based on Google Maps, and the GPS navigation system built in the application will assist the user when they are participating in the activity. Alternatively, you can build activities upon floor plans of buildings, for example, and use QR codes to activate tasks.
The Youth Department of Helsinki arranged an introduction to ActionTrack for its employees in the autumn of 2016, and we held another training session for our local work community in the spring of 2017. In the introduction, the trainers provided us with ideas of how the platform could possibly be used and utilised in participatory budgeting. It is vital in implementing the new tool that employees have sufficient time to get familiarised and to plan its practical applications in youth work.
Building ActionTrack activities and technical solutions
Creating an ActionTrack activity starts with creating a map template and separate tasks, which can later be attached to the template. We created the ActionTrack template and designed the participatory budget data collection simultaneously. It was an inspiring method of working, as we were able to simultaneously develop the task template and come up with ideas of what kind of tasks would provide us with the data we needed from the young people.
Problems and errors in creating the task template were not apparent to us until we went and tested an activity on-site, although the activity could be also tested in the office, if you disabled GPS in the template settings. Our team had problems, for instance, in sending videos shot in the activity. This would have proven to be a big problem in data collection, as it would have prevented delivering the messages young people wanted to convey us. The problem was solved by contacting the platform administrators. They usually replied very quickly, and their response time in solving problems was as quick as possible.
It was already decided in the planning phase that the application would be used on the iPads of the Youth Department, and not have young people download the application on their phones. This helped us to ensure that there are enough devices that have sufficient battery life and network connections. We were able to procure 20 iPads with an internet connection. The arrangement made data collection in teams possible by having one to three young people use each iPad.
Examples of tasks
One task was called ‘Pay It Forward’ and the task was ‘In your group, think about three things you could do for other people. Write your answers below!’ The answers included ‘Help with chores’, ‘help with homework’, ‘look after pets if a friend is travelling’, ‘stop teasing’ and ‘be kind to other people and respect them’.
Another task was called ‘First one at the gym, last to leave’, referring to a song by a young Finnish rapper Musta Barbaari, and the task was ‘Shoot a video or write an answer where you explain what sports activities young people need’. We received videos, where the answers included ‘An activity that is interesting and requires exercising’ and ‘It’s good if you can earn a living [out of the activity] in the future’.
We included memes, articles, YouTube videos and pictures related to the questions to liven up the tasks. We mostly used videos and written text as answering methods. Young people knew how to use ActionTrack pretty well, and they learned quickly how to use every tool in the application.
Experiences from using ActionTrack for the first time
ActionTrack was a good, active and hands-on approach to performing data collection for participatory budget planning. Youth leader Ricardo Acapo said that in addition to facilitating interaction between young people, ActionTrack also works well as an icebreaker activity. He thinks that questions were more approachable for young people because we used methods and tools familiar to them. The task of collecting local data for the process became simultaneously more fun and engaging for the young people.
Taru Sorsa, who leads participatory activities, thinks that ActionTrack encourages young people to move around in the near area and participate in the process much better than a questionnaire on paper. She thinks that the platform is applicable in very different outdoor environments, and it is easy to use indoors as well, if necessary. Even though at first it was cumbersome to get to know the platform’s every feature, and to see how they are shown to the users, the range of alternatives and methods of answering were viewed as a positive feature.
Creating an ActionTrack template and producing a functioning activity for the first time was demanding, and it required a lot of practice, mistakes and experimentation. It was a challenge to figure out how the battery life on the devices would suffice in a long activity. In addition, it was necessary to figure out how multiple groups could use the devices simultaneously. We also noticed that it was important to assess whether an Internet connection was required for the whole duration of the activity, or if it was sufficient that one was available only at the end and beginning of an activity. An active internet connection is required, for example, to send answers and play YouTube videos in ActionTrack.
It was problematic for the purposes of data collection that a user could bypass tasks without answering. We held a short instructional session for each class where we asked pupils to see that they do not leave questions unanswered. We also gave other general instructions about using the application before each activity.
Extracting the answers from the ActionTrack service proved to be somewhat problematic. Answers in text and number form were easily extracted into an Excel table, but video answers needed to be downloaded one at a time. Even though the platform is not intended for data collection purposes, we think that we received good material and data suitable for our intentions in planning the participatory budget. Young people’s attitudes towards this method were good, for the most part, and they were motivated to perform activities from their beginning to the end. The most common feedback was ‘Pretty good!’
From data collection to 7th graders’ team building
This autumn, we will use ActionTrack to support the team building capabilities of 7th graders. The purpose of the activities is to help pupils get to know each other and their teacher in a newly-formed class better, and to help them work better as a group. The team building sessions last for a school day, and we will utilise the ActionTrack platform to enable team building activities for two classes each day with the help of six youth leaders or other youth work professionals.
The previous team building exercise in our area has been a city adventure, where the class has acted together and in smaller groups. The city adventure has included, for instance, warm-up games, team tasks, riddles and pop quizzes about participatory budget planning. In addition, classes have had a chance to get to know the activities of the youth centre better.
The team building exercise this autumn is still going to be a city adventure, but with the help of ActionTrack, more pupils can move independently from one task to another. We hope that the application will make the tasks and the whole day more interesting and contemporary for the students.
Team building tasks include ‘Take a picture of your whole group’, ‘one passer-by in the background’ and ‘one plant and one picture’. The task can also be something like ‘Make a word of these letters, write it down and head towards the next task’.
We try to combine using ActionTrack with traditional team building exercises to create a team-building program that can offer sufficient challenge to seventh-graders while providing them with a chance to have a fun day together. The use of an online app or platform in no way eliminates the significance of the contact and guidance between a youth leader and a young person. Using this kind of a digital method provides youth work with another useful tool, and it helps us to better reach young people who actively use digital applications.
This article has first been published in our book “Digital youth work: a Finnish perspective”. Download or order your copy here.