Prototyping a physical service to test its feasibility and effectiveness


How might we reduce public complaints about trash while providing tangible health and safety benefits for residents experiencing homelessness residing in encampments?

Our Challenge

The Encampment Garbage Collection pilot seeks to understand how the City of Austin might provide tangible health and safety benefits for people residing in encampments and address persistent concerns about garbage around encampments.

The Watershed Protection Department’s (WPD) encampment management pilot tested a model based on the City of Seattle’s Encampment Trash (Purple Bags). This earlier work by the City of Austin demonstrated that people living in encampments, if given the tools and opportunity, will collect and properly dispose of garbage from their encampments. To build on these examples, the Watershed Protection Department (WPD) worked with the Service Design Lab, Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), Public Works (PWD), Parks and Recreation Department (PARD), the Integral Care PATH team, and 311 to test the pilot, conduct outreach, and collect data at five sites.


  • Research & Hypothesis
  • Prototype & Measure
  • Implementation & Hand-off

My role

As a member of the Service Design Lab, I led the prototype and measurement strategy for this project. As a project owner I collaborated closely with Austin Resource Recovery and the Watershed Protection Department to ensure effective implementation of the service.

Research & Hypothesis

We hypothesized that individuals experiencing homelessness will be using the violet bags as a means to dispose of trash and that resident complaints about trash in the areas around the encampments will drop.

The pilot sites were initially selected based on the volume of garbage-related complaints located at those sites. As part of the pilot, we wanted to continue using 311 data to gauge our impact and hoped to see complaints decrease in this time frame. ODD and 311 have developed a process to analyze the call notes and look for patterns in the frequence of the terms used in a call.

Prototype locations and the bags collected on week 1

Prototype & Measure

Through a two-phased pilot we explored three questions with specific goals and a testing plan:

Our questions:

  1. What would be the impact of adding garbage collection sites along existing ARR pick-up routes?
  2. What would be the outcome and efficacy of Violet Bag distribution either through kiosks or outreach workers?
  3. What would the impact of garbage collection be for people residing at encampment sites and for public perception?

Our goals:

  • Learn more about ARR pick-up requirements and coordination efforts along existing routes to reduce burden on ARR truck operators.
  • Minimize complaints about encampments and reduce impact on City property by providing trash bags and collection for participating residents.
  • Reduce safety risks to homeless individuals living near creeks or in storm drain infrastructure.
  • Effectively engage site residents at the piloted sites in Violet Bag collection guidelines and safe disposal practices.
  • Effectively increase awareness about the Violet Bag Pilot.
  • Address public concerns about garbage.

What we measured and observed:

Collection: # of bags collected and pounds of trash collected

ARR experience: Interview truck operator about their experiences as well as pain points, insights, and recommendations. Test cart collection.

Distribution: Test the efficacy of bag kiosks vs. distribution during outreach

Engagement: Interview people living at piloted sites and synthesize learnings and recommendation.

Test harm-reduction engagement at specific sites to improve compliance with sharps containers.

311 call patterns: Reduce 311 call complaints about trash, litter, or the homeless, Interview 311 callers.

Encampment resident education: Prototype and test pick-up signs and informational cards about pick-up day/time and drop-off instructions. Visit encampment sites to speak with residents about the pilot

Resident feedback: Feedback from neighborhood residents and businesses

After the first phase of the pilot, ARR made some adjustments to the collection schedule and began experimenting with collection containers at some of the sites. The collections at each site have increased to twice a week to help keep bag volumes low. ARR staff is also checking and filling the kiosks at each site. At the new Pleasant Valley site, ARR worked with PARD to install six large carts. The carts can be easily unlocked and emptied and minimize staff’s contact with the bags. ARR is also designing and testing a cage for carts at the TxDOT locations that will provide secure and easy access for the residents and minimize rodent activity.

In the second phase of the pilot ARR and the Service Design Lab considered some options for expanding the project to new sites and wanted to understand the types of locations that could be added. The criteria we identified were the presence of an encampment and a good location for a kiosk. An encampment is a space where one or more person is residing and storing their personal belongings. Some of the frequent calls about encampments and homelessness are actually locations where people may frequently panhandle, or “fly a sign,” and would not be good locations for Violet Bag distribution or collection. The kiosks and collection areas need to be accessible for ARR staff and large enough for a truck to pull up and turn around. We estimated that this is at least 50 feet of flat, preferably paved, area. It also needs to be close to the encampment area but, for their safety, residents can not live within 50 feet of the collection site.

Lamar and 183: Where there are several residents at this site the narrow and slanted banks of this overpass do not provide sufficient space for a kiosk and ARR access.

Implementation & Hand-off

There are significant efforts in Austin to provide adequate shelter and housing for all residents. However, there are more than 1,000 Austinites sleeping on the streets every night and many of these individuals are in semi-permanent encampments. In order to preserve human and environmental health and safety, these encampments need access to regular garbage collection. Through the Violet Bag Pilot Program, the City of Austin has developed an adaptive, interdepartmental model that leverages existing resources, collaborates with site residents to meet shared goals, and integrates outreach specialists to ultimately resolve encampments by ending the resident’s homelessness.


Through this pilot, we learned that many different factors may contribute to a site’s success and identified an interdepartmental model that can be scaled to respond to some types of encampment hotspots throughout the city. Recommendations based on the pilot include:

  • Maintain the existing violet bag program sites and the collaborative, interdepartmental team that supports it.
  • Make infrastructure improvements at all sites by installing carts, modifying the kiosk design, and identifying options to streamline kiosk sourcing.
  • Identify sites for possible scaling and expand project collaboration to include other public land managers in Austin.
  • Develop partnerships with faith-based and harm reduction organizations for site outreach and kiosk maintenance.





Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store