Burners, Meet Black Rock City Census

We’re the Census Lab volunteers, a motley team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002. Armed with lab coats and hot pink gear, we survey randomly selected cars of Burners arriving at the BRC gate. Then, when everyone gets home, we ask all BRC citizens to answer questions about their lives and likes to describe who they are, where they come from, and how they experience Burning Man. These data are published in our Afterburn Report and other reports (see the AfterBurn Report on Burning Man 2015) and are available to the community, the Burning Man Project, and numerous other stakeholders.

In the past, we’ve reported our findings on our own blog, but now we’re going to come straight to you, right here in the Burning Man Journal. By way of introducing ourselves, we’d like to answer a few FAQs we receive from Burners every year.

What the heck is the Census?

The Census used to be a big paper survey that Burners filled out on-playa at the Census Lab. In the last few years, we have changed our methods in an effort to collect more accurate data about the people in BRC. Now, we collect demographic data from a random selection of Burners entering BRC, then use that information to make our post-event survey results even more statistically representative.

After the event, we invite all Burners to complete the survey. We ask Burners questions about the number of Burns they’ve attended, their socio-demographic characteristics, what they do in Nevada, how they arrive on playa, how they camp on playa, and their personal identities. Since 2014, the Census also collects free-form responses from field notes journals spread throughout various locations in BRC. Each journal contains a short set of open­-ended questions about a particular topic. We’ll explain a bit more about field notes later on in this post.

Although the BRC Census is technically a survey and not a census, we provide the most statistically reliable and valid estimates concerning the BRC population. This is the fourth consecutive year using our sampling and weighting methods.

The Census is an independent research collaboration between the Census Lab and the Burning Man Project. The Census obtained Institutional Review Board (a committee on research ethics) approval from Denver University and no personal identifying information is collected so that respondent confidentiality is protected.

Wait, how can you accurately describe all Burners with a survey that only some Burners complete? (A.K.A. Weighting the Census)

Even though only a portion of all Burners complete the online Census, we can statistically analyze these results and produce results that describe the whole BRC population. To do this, we create an unbiased reference by randomly sampling Burners coming into BRC at different points and times (cars at the gate during pre-event arrival, ingress, Burner Express riders, and soon even BRC Airport arrivals). We ask approximately nine sociodemographic questions to the randomly selected Burners who agree to participate. Using these unbiased reference variables, we correct (i.e., weight) the online responses so they are representative of the total population of Burning Man attendees that year.

In other words, the weighting procedure corrects biases due to self-selection in the online survey (or the phenomenon where Burners who decide to fill out the Census might be different from those who decide not to fill it out). Thus, the online Census results are weighted according to this random sampling, improving the collective accuracy of the data.

Though these results are the most reliable estimates that we have of the BRC population, the true population values could differ slightly from the presented values due to measurement error (sometimes referred to as margin of error). These measurement errors, however, are very small due to the sheer number of survey participants. More precisely, the margin of error for most estimated proportions is roughly 1% or less (for all of you statistics enthusiasts, we’ll release another post specifying BRC Census methodology in the coming weeks).

Okay, but why do you collect these data to begin with?

We use Census data in three main ways:

  1. We share the results with Burners and the wider world through blog posts (see our archival blog) to give everyone an accurate picture of what the BRC population is like each year.
  2. Collaborating academic researchers volunteer to administer the Census and contribute questions for their own research projects. Past inquiries have looked at gender, sexuality, play, transformation, and emotions.
  3. The Burning Man Project uses Census data in their negotiations and advocacy for the event, in public presentations about the event and Burning Man culture, and for storytelling and media projects that reach audiences across the globe.

Cool! What kinds of questions can you answer using the Census data?

Lots of things, many of which are covered in the 2015 AfterBurn Report. Some examples could include:

  • What percent of last year’s Burners were attending for the first time (A.K.A. virgins)?
  • What percent of last year’s Burners considered themselves religious?
  • What percent of last year’s Burners traveled from outside the United States, compared to five years ago?

Stay tuned and we’ll be answering some of the following questions in future blog posts:

  • What is Burning Man’s economic impact on Nevada?
  • What are the demographic changes over time among Burners?
  • How are people attending Burning Man once to “check it off the list” (or bucket-listers) different from returning Burners?

We also provide the Burning Man Project with various information to help them plan and manage the event. For example, we estimate the proportion of carpooling Burners, radio ratings for BMIR, and Burners’ fuel consumption.

You mentioned the field notes. What is that, and how is it different from the online questionnaire?

Field notes are a pen-and-paper-based interactive component of the Census. Available only on playa, field notes are large notebooks placed in different locations throughout BRC. While we ask respondents particular questions about the experience of Burning Man and their reactions to the particular location of the notebook (i.e. Temple versus Census Lab), responses can be verbal or visual with some Burners providing illustrations or emotive journal-style entries.

In 2015, we asked questions such as:

  • Does Burning Man enrich your life?
  • What emotions do you experience in BRC?
  • Do you wear costumes at Burning Man? Why or why not?
  • What does drinking and smoking mean to you? For example, do you view drinking and smoking as a form of play/recreation, as a kind of medicine, as a sacrament, or are there other reasons for drinking/smoking?
  • What has caused you or people you know to have negative experiences at Burning Man?
  • Have you ever met someone new and fallen in love in Black Rock City? Please describe.
  • What is the single most surprising or unconventional piece of equipment you bring to Burning Man?

I’m intrigued. How can I learn more about the Census or about the population of Burners?

For more results, visit us on the playa near Center Camp, at our archival blog, or, starting with the 2015 Census, at our new Burning Man Journal page. We’ll be posting to this site every week or so, and we look forward to sharing the data nerdiness with you!

What about volunteering for the Census?

We’re glad you asked! We love our volunteers and would love to have you on the team. More than 150 volunteers were involved with the Census Lab this year and we are always fond of having fresh faces on the team. Just go to our Volunteer Resources Page for more information on getting involved.


Written by Rebecca Mason (B^2), edited by Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost (Hunter), Dana Lilienthal DeVaul (DV8), and Rachel McKay

Top photo by Philippe Glade

About the author: Census Team

The Census Lab is a volunteer team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002.

7 Comments on “Burners, Meet Black Rock City Census

  • Tony says:

    I spent some time filling out field notes, and would love to view some curated excerpts of other people’s experiences. Is that something that might be published?

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    • Dominic aka Hunter - Main analyst at the Census Lab says:

      Hi Tony, we are currently discussing how these field notes could be best shared with the community. We will first be releasing blogs posts about the quantitative results from the post-event survey (i.e., the “Census”), but you might see something about the field notes on this blog in a month or so.

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  • wylbur says:

    I love that you’re doing this, and I am eager to read the full methodology writeup. In particular, how to estimate the variances on the weighted estimates? 1%? hmmm.

    In another post-stratification project I’ve done since working on the weighting plan for the 2012 BM Census, I’ve found a couple of weird bits.

    Nothin’ is as good as math, unless it’s dusty math :) — wylbur.

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    • Dominic aka Hunter - Main analyst at the Census Lab says:

      Hi Wylbur, the method post will probably not be detailed enough for your taste, but I would be glad to give you more details directly and hear about suggestions you could have. Our weighting plan is quite similar to what you and your team first designed in 2012, with some minor adjustments mainly due to changes in population coverage and traffic management during ingress. Variance estimation is indeed a challenge. I discussed the issue with MoE a little while ago, but I would be glad to have your take on it if you feel like it. I’ll send you a private message.

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  • Victoria Rose says:

    Hi George!

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  • jeff says:

    hi guys , I’m not sure if the random element selection
    is important in this regard but id like to be surveyed in
    2016 as I ride a motorcycle to burning man (and have for 13 yrs in a row) there are not many of us so I thought
    I’d volunteer to add to your sample space. I only suggest
    this because I just read that you intend to survey those
    who arrive by airplane (or helicopter :-) to black rock city. I imagine us ‘non traditional’ or AlternativeArrivers
    are comparatively tough to get ahold of , so feel free to contact me if you like , I have filled out the census every year I have come to the Burn (the last 13 yrs consecutive :-)
    Flava’Nuggetz !
    (jeff)

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    • Dominic aka Hunter - Main analyst at the Census Lab says:

      Hi Jeff,
      For the random sampling at the gates, it really has to be a random selection. If you enter BRC through the usual entrance, you have approximately one chance out of 30 to be stopped by the Census team to fill out a short survey. However, we encourage you to fill out the post-event survey whether or not you were randomly selected.

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