AFTERBURN REPORT 2004
Like any contemporary organization, Burning Man makes use of a great variety of off-the-shelf software packages to meet its IT needs. However, some needs are specific enough that commercial software won't suffice, at least not without significant customization. The Technology department's Engineering team is the group that builds custom software to Burning Man's specifications, managing the development process from design through to deployment.
The Engineering team focuses on web-based applications, providing ways for distributed management of Burning Man internal processes, and ways for the participant community to interact with Burning Man and with each other. All of the dynamic applications running on the web site (e.g., e-playa, image gallery, calendars, questionnaires, etc.) are managed by the Engineering team, as is the Black Rock City Extranet, an internal resource used by some of the many teams that make up the Burning Man organization. The servers and services required for these applications are supported by the SysAdmin team.
Most of the new development performed by the Engineering team is based on Plone, an open source content management system that has been growing in popularity. The Engineering team has become an active member of the Plone community, contributing code back to Plone and its add-on products and working with others to solve mutual problems. In 2003 through 2004, Engineering team members contributed to Plone-related projects, attended events, and even presented at conferences related to Plone and Python installations.
The most significant roll-out for the team over the last year was the new questionnaire system. This resource gathers participant information regarding theme camps, art installations, mutant vehicles, and scholarship applications. The predecessor system was replaced by a new Plone-based version with much improved usability and reliability over the former. Also, a back-end system, also Plone-based, was constructed to help members of the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) to complete pre-playa and on-playa processing of license applications.
The Engineering team has done a great deal of work on a revision of the Black Rock City extranet, a internal tool for Burning Man staff and volunteers to share information and manage projects. The extranet is a groupware application that provides web space, file sharing, events and news publishing, wikiweb access, discussion boards, contact information, etc. to the many teams that work together to produce Burning Man. While the initial version of the extranet depended on a separate internal Burning Man database, the replacement is capable of standing alone without the need for any external database. Therefore, the new system can be made available to anyone else who'd like to use it, and indeed the plan is to release the system under an open source license for any who are interested.
In addition to these construction efforts, a number of existing tools received Engineering team love over the last year. The e-playa software management process was improved and a selection of modifications were installed to adapt the base phpbb software that runs the bulletin board.
The "Add-A-Link" section of the Burning Man website invites folks to submit links to community sites related to groups and organizations, Burning Man related businesses, artists and art communities, and musicians and performing artists. The content had become overrun with decidedly non-community-related commercial advertising (i.e., spam). Moderation filtering was added to these tools to exclude the spammers. Performance and usability improvements also enhanced the image gallery and on-line event calendars.
The Engineering team, like other participants, always generates many more exciting ideas than available resources can implement, so we are always looking for help. If you have solid web-based software engineering skills and would like to learn more about our projects, please take some time to fill out the volunteer questionnaire.
Rob Miller, Technology Dept Lead