A few weeks ago, Matías and I were lucky to visit Rio de Janeiro. We were invited to lead a workshop with users of the Voices of Youth app to gather information and ideas towards building a new and improved version.

The Voices of Youth program is about letting teenagers get involved with their communities by giving them a tool to report health risks in their neighbourhoods. Through several NGOs in each country, UNICEF teaches about environmental risks to groups of kids and teenagers, and gives them cellphones with an InSTEDD-developed application to report pictures of those risks that actually happen in their own neighbourhood. The reports then get uploaded to a web map, allowing health officials to view and act on the problems of each community.

We started out by visiting a “favela” to the west of Rio: Campo Grande, where the Voices of Youth program has just started to be implemented. Ives Rocha and Vivian Pacheco coordinated a tour around a few areas of the favela with about 25 teenage volunteers. They were given cell phones with the app installed, had a very fun introduction to how the program works, and off we went to walk around their homes and take pictures of environmental health risks.

The volunteers were really into it, and as programmers, it is both exciting and useful to see how people interact with our application. They seemed to find their way around the different menus very well and they were also very careful as to what they should report. We were also psyched to find uses we hadn’t foreseen and new ideas came rolling in.

Mapping environmental risks in their own community using the Voices of Youth mobile app

Next day we had the workshop with guests from all backgrounds: from the teens who had been using the app and the teachers coordinating them, to the UNICEF team, the NGO team and local government officials. We all sat down around a table and, through a few different brainstorming methods, got plenty of ideas to start taking this application to the next level.

Brainstorming sessions with users are challenging but also very gratifying experiences. For this particular experience we went with short activities which helped get everyone involved and talking. When the people discussing have different interests and ideas it is sometimes difficult to get them all on the same page, and giving their outlook on a certain situation, so for this instance we chose activities that started with individual time and sharing afterwards, such as a retrospective with a little time for each to share their ideas, followed by grouping those ideas into categories oriented at solving the same problems, and ranking those through a fair voting system after. Once that was done we delved deeper into planning of the highest ranked points and seeing how those could be implemented.

The kites enable the teenagers to take wide-open pictures from the sky - and everybody else's attention to the project

After all was done Matías and I sat down for our own chat, writing everything we’d heard and all the ideas we’d had down to be the base for the proposal for where this project is going from now on. And afterwards we flew home, but not before we’d had a glance at the Rio beach first!