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.

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  • 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.

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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

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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.

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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:

  • 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.

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