Tracking syringe litter through a new app

Technology is building efficiencies for the Syringe Pick Up Crew at San Francisco AIDS Foundation. In an innovative project with an app developer, a team of foundation leaders designed and created an app that Pick Up Crew members use to track where they pick up improperly discarded syringes in public spaces around San Francisco. The data help the team learn over time where discarded syringes are likely to be, and deploy team members to locations most affected by syringe litter.

“We know that improperly discarded syringes are an issue the city and many concerned citizens are unhappy about,” said Jen Hecht, MPH, senior director of program strategy and evaluation. “This app will help us use our resources as well as possible and in ways that allow the Pick Up Crew to be most efficient when they go out.”

The Pick Up Crew work in pairs seven days a week, 12 hours a day, to respond quickly and safely to reports submitted by community members. To submit a report, community members can text a photo and the location to 415-810-1337.

 The easy-to-use app is something that Syringe Pick Up Crew members turn on when they hit the streets to pick up syringes. It tracks the routes that team members travel and has a reporting feature that team members use to indicate the number and location of syringes that are picked up. In aggregate, the data collected reveal streets and other public spaces across the city that could benefit from additional sweeps by the Syringe Pick Up Crew.   

“There are definitely places around the city that we’ve noticed are places where people use drugs, and we’ve been able to frequent those places,” said Rob Hoffman, associate director of syringe access, mobile and disposal services. “Since the team was hired, we’ve been picking up roughly 3,000 to 4,000 syringes every week. This is in addition to the 45,000 syringes that participants bring back to syringe access services disposal locations.”

The team travels to neighborhoods across the city when needed, but focuses especially on SoMa, the Tenderloin, Market Street, Hayes Valley and Polk Gulch, said Whit Bastian, SAS manager.  

In addition to picking up syringes, Hoffman said an important part of the team’s focus is on building relationships with community members who are concerned about syringe disposal and reporting improperly discarded syringes. They share a phone/text line that people can use to request clean-up services and encourage people to make reports.

“We understand that people can get frustrated [by discarded syringes], but I think many people are happy when they find out there is a solution and something they can do about it,” said Hoffman. “Overall, people are happy and grateful for the service our team provides.”

A user of a neighborhood-based website shared his experience reporting syringes to the Pick Up Crew using the SMS texting line. “Used the number for the 1st time this week,” wrote user Jim Anderson on “I texted them pics yesterday of needles in 2 locations. Included address, etc….a small pic of the spot and a bigger one to help navigate to the needles. Both were cleaned up within an hour and the folks sent me pics back to confirm the cleanup. Pretty awesome.”

A hopeful second phase of the project is to create a real-time reporting system and dispatch system the public could use that would complement the SMS text hotline, 415-810-1337.

“The idea would be that the public could report discarded syringes through a specific URL, which would come in to the team managers through the app. They would then be able to dispatch someone quickly to the location,” said Hecht.  


The Syringe Pick Up Crew, funded by the Department of Public Health, works seven days a week in neighborhoods across the city to pick up and safely dispose of improperly discarded syringes. We encourage concerned citizens to report syringes through 311 and to connect with our teams if they are interested in getting more involved.

If you would like to report improperly discarded syringes you have some options: call 311 or use the 311 app. You can also call or text the Pick Up Crew at 415-810-1337.


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