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AFTERBURN REPORT 2001

Technology

The link between art and technology is both literal and fundamental within the Burning Man Project. The artistic and the technological mind are two aspects of the same process. Both require creativity and originality in the pursuit of their goals. Both are passionate and dedicated to their projects. Both expend tremendous amounts of energy toward one goal: to communicate with others.

The tech groups supporting Burning Man have evolved as organically as the event itself:

  • By 1997 the volunteer staff had grown large enough to require email lists to communicate with each other and with participants. The first Web team was born, consisting of five volunteers working from their homes.

  • When the organization found its first office in the spring of 1999, the tech groups were required to wire the whole building with an ethernet themselves, almost entirely with volunteer help, to save money on the lease. Once moved in, the Desktop Support team was born to help manage the computers in the office.

  • As the administrative needs and volunteer groups continued to grow, a Database team evolved to help manage Burning Man's contacts (mailing list), volunteers, ticket sales, DMV participants, media registration and a number of other databases vital to the event. They did this work on the same FileMakerPro platform that several organizational staff members had been using for years to manage contact information.


  • Shortly after the 1999 move into the Burning Man offices, a new Mac server was procured to manage the legacy FileMakerPro system. This new server, combined with the increasingly complex needs of the public web server and growing extranet, created a need for a centralized system administration function. The SysAdmin team coalesced to fulfill this role, becoming the backbone of the tech groups.

  • In 1999, a single volunteer offered to make an interactive map on which the Theme Camps staff could more easily assign camp placement before the event. This project blossomed, and a software development team and project process were born to fully address the needs of the theme camp placement staff. The potential uncovered by this interactive mapping project crossed into ideas the web team had been developing, and into needs that PlayaNet had hoped to address. This cross departmental database project became the Special Projects team and expanded into a tool employed on the playa in 2001 by PlayaNet, with plans for eventual deployment by the Web team. The resources and direction of the original interactive mapping project were re-directed toward a single database directory intended to serve participants, Playa Information Services, and PlayaNet.

  • As the volunteer count continued to grow into the thousands, the need to manage project teams and departments via centralized online resources also became apparent. In response, the extranet concept finally took off. In early 2001, the Intranet Team reformed as the Extranet Team with a clear goal, vision and platform for development. Currently in development with an expected launch in February 2002, version 1.0 of the extranet will provide the tools the other volunteer groups need to better manage staff and projects. When the project is completed the intent is to make it available for regional contacts, Burning Man theme camp teams and other groups outside of the organization.

The technology teams are a study in healthy workgroups. Tech volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from independent webmasters to corporate network admins. They bring experience of the best working practices, creating a volunteer environment that is collaborative, respectful, sometimes strenuous, fun and exciting. As with the rest of the organization, critical decisions are made within the consensus process. This challenging process encourages buy-in and commitment from team members, enhanced by the opportunity to contribute opinions and experience to a radically unique event through technology.




The Burning Man Project has recognized the critical role that the tech groups play in facilitating the event with enhanced communication tools, committing some budget funding to them. The groups are still almost entirely volunteer-based, with a small paid staff to ensure stabilization of the systems that the volunteers, staff, and participants rely upon everyday.

Have no doubt that the tech geeks do what they do because they love playing with technology and finding the right solution. This work has its own reward, but in the end, they do it to maintain ability to communicate with each other, with other groups, with the participants that make up the Burning Man community. They may not be as visible as the Rangers, DPW, Greeters, or Lamplighters, but the technology teams construct the backbone of communication tools on which Black Rock City depends.

Watch in 2002 as the Technology Department continues to develop tools to solve the communication needs of a temporary city built from the needs of an emerging culture.