Count Me! Count Me!

Don’t be surprised if a group of lab coat-clad scientists descends upon your vehicle as you approach the Greeters station this year. You might just be one of the lucky ones selected by the Census Samplers! These eager burning nerds are keen to include you in a scientific probability sample of Black Rock City’s population. They’re gathering data to get a more accurate picture of who is attending Burning Man this year. Aren’t you curious to know?

Last year 42% of the people who participated in the Black Rock City Census considered themselves artists, and an additional 35% considered themselves artists sometimes (read prior stats from the Census). Do these numbers seem high to you? Low? We don’t know if the people who voluntarily filled out the Census were truly representative of the citizens of BRC.

So, this year Census volunteers (this could be you!) will conduct a systematic random sample of vehicles entering the event. Census Samplers will ask a small number of participants to answer a small number of questions. They will enter the data into a smartphone and then be on their way. The statisticians at the Census Lab (located in Center Camp) are going to use the data collected by the Census Samplers to correct the results of the larger sample. In the end, we will have a scientifically valid picture of the population of Black Rock City. And as they say at the Census—knowledge is power! As usual, no names will be collected on the Census form. Only aggregated data will be published; your individual responses will remain confidential.

There are several ways that you can participate in the Census this year…

  1. Donate your used smartphones and tablets.
  2. Volunteer with the Census. You’ll be a scientist!!!
  3. When you get to Black Rock City–fill out the Census form.

Donating an Android Phone or Tablet:

* The Census Samplers NEED your old Android smartphone to do this critical work. If you’re ready to get rid of your phone, consider donating it to the Census. The Census Samplers are looking for Androids with an operating system of 2.3 or later. If your phone was made in the last two years, it should work for sampling purposes. It does NOT have to have go online or have a sim card. If you can donate your phone with its working charger, battery, and memory card, too, that would be very cool. You won’t get your phone back, but you will make these demographers’ dream come true.

* If you are ready to get rid of your tablet, the Census team would love to take it off your hands and put it to work so that we can directly enter Census forms and connect folks to independent research questions. Any kind of tablet in any condition will do, as long as it can still get online. And a power cord would be nice.

Send your phones and tablets to Census @ Burning Man, 995 Market Street, San Francisco CA 94117. 


* The Census needs forty Samplers to interview folks and type the data into Android phones. Shifts are 3 hours long. Although the event does not begin until 12:01am on Monday, August 27th, this year the Gate will open at 6pm on Sunday, August 26th to ease traffic and ensure public safety.  This means that the busiest time for Census Samplers will be Sunday evening and Monday. The Samplers will finish up Thursday evening, and cap off the project with a big shebang. If you already have an early arrival pass, or are available at that time, you are the Sampling team’s dream come true.

* If you would like to help with other aspects of the project, volunteers are needed to help at the Census Lab in Center Camp. The team needs help pre-event to set up the Lab and install the Census kiosks around the city. Volunteers are needed during the event to keep the Census kiosks stocked, to retrieve completed Census forms and process them in the shade, and to greet visitors to the Census Lab and offer them a tablet or paper Census form. Volunteers are needed at the end of the event to remove the kiosks and strike the Lab.

To volunteer email Please be sure to specify if you’re interested in Sampling and/or volunteering at the Census Lab…AND if you are available to volunteer before, during, and/or after the event.

Participating in the Black Rock City Census 2012:

Don’t worry … you can still sip a latte in the Center Camp Café as you fill out the paper Census form. Everyone can participate (the more, the merrier!). In addition to the Café, you can find forms and drop boxes at Census kiosks located at Playa Info, Ranger Outpost Berlin at 3:00, Ranger Outpost Tokyo at 9:00, Hushville, the Contraptionists, Sweaty Betty’s, Astral Headwash, HeebeeGeebee Healers, and Kidsville. You can also visit the Census Lab, where we hope to have a few tablets for those who would like to fill out a digital version of the Census. Please fill out one form per person only. And again, your individual responses will remain confidential.

About the Census

The Census is a collaborative research project that Burning Man’s Mistress of Communications Marian Goodell initiated in 2002. The Countess volunteered as manager of the Census in 2004 and has been cultivating the project ever since. Volunteers include professors, students, staff, and researchers from UC Los Angeles, University of Denver, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Essex, Florida International University, UC Berkeley, University of Victoria, Royal Roads University, and Université du Québec à Montréal. The results are distributed at the Census Lab in Black Rock City, in the AfterBurn report online, and in academic publications. The information is also used by the Burning Man organization to better represent the interests of the people of Black Rock City.

One more thing. The Census Samplers have just launched a blog, which is a great way for you to keep up with exciting developments in the project, and to communicate with other people who might be interested in sampling. See a blog post that interests you? By all means, post a comment!




About the author: The Countess

The Countess has been burning since 1999 and has been counting Burners with the Census since 2004. One Burner. Two Burners. Three Burners. Four Burners. Five Burners. Mah Ah Ah Ah Ahhhh. (thunder clap)

18 Comments on “Count Me! Count Me!

  • Mr Stats says:

    OK so Statistics 101:
    A Census is when you gather information from ALL members of a population. Eg a national population census performed by the goverment.

    A Survey is when you gather information from SOME of the members of a population. Eg asking some viewers of a population what TV show they are watching, in order to estimate the total number of people in a population watching said show.

    Therefore this activity, and the yearly on-playa “Census” is not a census at all, but a survey!

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  • Todd Gardiner says:

    I believe they take their name from the US Census, much as the BRC Post Office took the make from the US Post Office (and then eventually became official).

    If the name were from the literal action, you would be right. And certainly the goal or desire is to actually get a form completed by each participant.

    Is a voluntary census not a census at all because it is voluntary, thus it is incomplete?

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  • Peace says:

    First, this is a good thing. Second, what I’m about to say will make me sound like a douch-bag. I thinking that’s fair. So here goes. I have a masters degree in public opinion research so I’m the only one who cares and this is just a pet peave but…THERE IS NOT SUCH THING AS A CENSUS SAMPLE!!!!. A census by definition means you count everyone. When you use a representative sample it’s a SURVEY. Yes the US Census also conducts surveys of representative samples, but the census part is the part where they count everybody. I am happy to see I’m not the only one who thinks about this. I am sad that I think about this and realise my life is an empty fraud of worrying about stupid distinctions nobody else cares about. I’m so very lonely. Please ignore this and enjoy your survey…ummm…census.

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  • Peace says:

    BTW if you hand a survey to what would amount to a random sample, say every 7th car comming through the gate, your survey will have statistical merrit. If you have surveys available in center camp and people fill them out if they feel like it, that is a convienience sample and is not statistically valid. If you wanted more data and kept the random sample separate, you could weight the convienience sample to the random sample, provided you had enough demographic data in both.

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  • Thermal says:

    @Peace: Someone else who loves study design and statistics! A kindred spirit! I am a scientist and I am currently working on a publication and I’m swimming in statistics right now. A lovely place to be.

    I LOVE to see all these comments! Its beautiful to see people who can think!

    Yes, everyone who has commented here is correct. This appears to be poorly designed. They tout this as “scientifically valid”, BUT that is not necessarily true and THAT TERM SHOULDN’T BE THROWN AROUND. Particularly since this is a survey, and they “are going to use the data collected by the Census Samplers to correct the results of the larger sample”. Hm, and HOW will you be “correcting” the data.

    I am skeptical (as any proper scientist should be).

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  • Thermal says:

    @Peace, I too worry about “stupid distinctions”… if only we had the chance to discuss these important matters!

    Yes, Peace, you are right. By putting forms at some locations, you are just sampling a portion of the population that would visit that spot. That is not statistically valid.
    One year I never visited Center Camp at all. Another year, I had a nieghbor who I suspect never left his camp, except to go to the porta potty which was less than a half block away (in sight of his camp) and possibly the burn.

    also, they are also measuring only between sunday and thursday. What about people who arrive Friday? This is not a “scientifically valid” measure of the entire population of BRC.

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  • Thermal says:

    Additionally, many participants are in altered states (intoxicated, sleep-deprived, imagining that they are from Mars instead of Seattle). Sampling at the gate is one thing. Sampling from people who fill out forms at 4am and are high as a kite is another.

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  • Peace says:

    Thanks Thermal…it’s an illness but I live with it. There are lots of social scientists who are interested in and participate in Burning man. There is a good study to be done with the cooperation of the org.

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  • Evan says:

    Its not a census if you’re taking a sample..

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  • Sticky says:

    At Peace: As long as we are being geek nitpickers and all, I must point out that your second post referred to the burners “comming through the gate”. Perhaps what you meant were the burners “coming” through the gate, in which case your assessment is correct. But if what you meant were those “cumming” through the gate, you would be referring to a much smaller (but happier) statitical sampling set. Nuff said.

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  • wylbur says:

    Commenters are quite right: the existing “census” has always been a survey by convenience sample, and it will be the same this year. The name “census” is a bit on the playful side, which seems to me appropriate for BM.

    For purposes of discussion, let’s just call the traditional “census” the “long form.” Several of the concerns voiced here (e.g., “I never go to Center Camp”) are the exact motivation for the sampling, i.e., let’s get less biased tabulations from tabulations of variables from the long form. We can’t get a random sample for the entire long form because it takes a while to fill out, so we looked for other methods. This is what we came up with:

    The sampling described in this post will be multistage (some number of shifts within each day, 1 respondent from each sampled vehicle). We’re working now on how we sample vehicles, but it will probably be some variation of systematic random sampling at entry during each sampled shift. The variance projections are coming along, and they’ll go on the blog when we finalize them.

    Data will be captured by handheld devices (Android phones), synced at the end of each shift, and new stratum distributions estimated. We don’t know what the best stratification will be yet, so we’re capturing about 14 mostly demographic variables and we’ll test it as data come in.

    The point of the sampling will be to develop stratum weights to adjust tabulations done from variables in the long forms; we’ll do the adjustment via raking, matching the proportions estimated for each stratum by the sample. A stratum is a combination of variables we’ll capture, e.g., 20-24yo F from the non-California Western US in their 1 or 2 year attending who got tickets in the STEP program (age x sex x home region x playa age x ticket origin is one possible combination).

    We’ll estimate the population proportion for each stratum, then use that to re-weight the comparable stratum in the long form responses. So if we estimate from the sample that 2% of the city is in the stratum above, but 4% of the long forms are filled out by people in that stratum, long form responses in this stratum will have a weight of 0.5.

    The estimates we get this way reduce bias that is caused by stratum imbalances in the long form’s convenience sample, which is where we think most biases come from. But, as one AAPOR commenter wrote recently, “raking is not magic!” This method won’t get us to results as reliable as either a true census (which would be intrusive and burdensome) or as a random sample of the entire long form (which would be cumbersome and very slow to administer). So we think this is a good balance, and we’re eager to find out how it goes in practice.

    We’ll get some direct estimates from the random sampling, but our real focus is on adjusting the “census” long form.

    The universe to which we are generalizing will be Burners who enter during the days we sample. We could do another shift or two on Friday, though it’s not my impression that many new people turn up on Friday. If you’re worried we’ll miss people, volunteer for a few shifts sampling, and we’ll add Friday to the schedule!

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  • Countess says:

    The Census is a dream, just like Black Rock City. It grows more real every year–the more people that participate and believe in it. Perhaps someday it will be a full grown Census. Until then, the Samplers can help us correct the bias.

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  • Denny smith says:

    Perhaps this survey, I mean census, would be interested in who has attended in the past and not going this year. This may or may not be useful data,

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  • Mutant vehicle owners of America says:

    So, what’s the consensus of the census?……

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  • Peace says:


    Sounds like a sound study plan within the limitations that exist. I do think sampling on Friday would be important to capture the “weekend warrior” crowd who only come for the burns. I’m on another work crew so I am not available to volunteer that day, but I do think sampling that day is important. Thanks for the complete response. You’ve made happy my geeky heart very happy. I’m currious if you have baseline data on previous years demographics, including experienced burner versus newbie ratios. It would be interesting to see what the effect of ticket shortages are on those numbers.

    @ Sticky

    A truly creative person can spell a word three or four diferent ways…but I like your implication…

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  • Setting sample/census aside, what intrigued me was this:

    “Last year 42% of the people who participated in the Black Rock City Census considered themselves artists, and an additional 35% considered themselves artists sometimes (read prior stats from the Census). Do these numbers seem high to you? Low? We don’t know if the people who voluntarily filled out the Census were truly representative of the citizens of BRC.”

    It reminds me of two stories. One is of a woman who told her daughter that she was taking classes to learn how to draw. Amazed (and a little shocked) the daughter asked, “When did you forget?”

    The second concerns a man who went into a kindergarten classroom, walked up to the board and, taking a piece of chalk, put a dot in the middle of the board. Standing back, he asked, “What is it?” He got about a hundred answers. “It’s a cloud.” “It’s a bird.” “It’s a snowflake.” An airplane, a star, a speck of dust… the list went on an on.

    The same wan went into a 2nd yr university physics class, went up to the board and put a dot in the middle of the board. He stood back and asked, “What is it?” There was complete silence in the room for several minutes. Finally one of the students raised a hand, and when asked, volunteered “It’s equidistant from the four corners.” Everyone else in the class was immediately relieved that the answer had been found.

    EVERYONE is an artist.


    P.S. The original authors of those two stories are unknown, but much appreciated.

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  • pigpen says:

    i have a sinking feeling this may slow down the process of gate entry

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  • reidflys says:

    What about handling out the survey at the road as soon as you turn in to every 7th person or something and letting people hand them in at the Greeters Station.

    This information isn’t being sold, correct?

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