AFTERBURN REPORT 2007
This year, Burning Man’s engineering development team made good progress on many different fronts, including the questionnaire system, implementing a new set of blogs, and making upgrades to existing applications. Despite being a small, resource-constrained team fraught with inevitable sidelining distractions, the team manages to make advancements.
With the increased number of total projects in which the team was engaged over the year, a Development Team Project Manager was brought on to oversee these efforts. Also, there were regular weekly technical development meetings, wherein all the development engineers discussed their progress, challenges, and next steps… and in many cases, worked together to brainstorm solutions.
In the team’s bi-annual volunteer intake, some extremely competent geeks joined the crew on a volunteer basis. They’ve been generously donating many hours of their valuable time helping with various projects. As a result, the team now boasts more hardcore developers in the mix ready to pick up challenging projects.
The team had great success with the Plone-based questionnaire system, through which participants register their Burning Man projects. While the difficulties inherent in Plone continue to challenge the team, successes in this area were a result of having the same person support the questionnaires two years in a row (a first), as well as an increased focus on quality assurance testing. The end result was a satisfied customer base, including the art department, placement team, and Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). The back-end of the DMV system took longer than anticipated, but the front-ends of the projects were much more stable than ever before. The dedicated volunteer staff stepped up to help with the testing and feedback process, which made all the difference. There is a direct correlation between QA testing and the success of a finished product, which reduces the total amount of time and effort put into it and the satisfaction of the end users.
Over the summer, the team created and skinned four blogs on the Burning Man website using Wordpress: the Enviroblog, the “Prepare to Burn” preparation blog, Building Black Rock City, and a Regionals blog. Each blog was skinned to look like a regular page on the website and color-coded to reflect the section in which they were contained. Thus, the blogs work as integral parts of each section and do not look like separate parts of the site. They contain links back into the sections they are from, as well as a set of navigation for the blog itself. The intention for 2008 is to consolidate the core engines of these distinct blog instances into one application with four different views, and to add a Black Rock City Yearround blog as well.
An ongoing project has been upgrading the extranet (the Project’s internal file management and communication system) to the latest version of Plone, on which it is built. With the latest version of Plone, many of the issues and complaints people have been experiencing will disappear. Due to the team’s limited development bandwidth, some of time spent evaluating and implementing blog software over the summer and other event preparations diverted the focus from the extranet upgrade, but it’s a goal to finalize this upgrade, including feature upgrades and improvements to the system in the following year.
The People’s Database contains data about all the people who have ever volunteered with Burning Man. As Burning Man is a very large volunteer-driven organization, it’s critical that this piece of technology serve its customers: both the volunteers themselves, and those that manage them. This year, the team began the effort to move it from FileMaker Pro to Plone, with a ZopeDB on the back end. At the same time, the team is redesigning it and its workflow to be easier to use. This included developing a prototype Plone-based Volunteer Questionnaire that will feed data directly into the extranet, through which volunteers can manage their own personal data as it changes over time. This is an ongoing project for the coming year.
For internal organization and playa/regional event scheduling, Burning Man currently has three different implementations of a modified web calendar, none of which have been satisfactorily meeting the Project’s needs for several years. The team spent some time investigating alternative options, including some costly external commercial calendar applications. The team has also developed prototypes of LDAP solutions that will allow the integration of an external calendar program into the extranet access and permissions system (read: single sign-on) so that whatever external solution is selected will be seamlessly integrated and team-aware as far as an extranet user is concerned.
Finally, the team allocated one engineer’s time to the development of an integrated streaming server management system on a new Apple Xserve. The system will store all of the Project’s large streaming media, including video and audio, as well as static media such as photographs, illustrations, and playa artifacts (material culture archive). Plone is used to manage the content and provide an interface to browse the media. It’s expected that this will be finalized and live, streaming all the media for Burning Man before the 2008 event.
Overall, the engineering team has made great strides, and has much more to accomplish. Through careful project planning and incremental development and releases, the infrastructure is in place to more quickly create great products that support the Burning Man vision.