Why Should You Fill Out Your BRC Census? Because It Matters

By Laura “Dr. Daneosaur” Dane, Dana “DV8” DeVaul, Sarah “Picky” Williamson

Hopefully, by now, you’ve seen the Black Rock City Census link in either our social media posts, the Burning Man Journal, or in the JRS. From now until October 15, use that link to participate in the online survey put together by Black Rock City Census and our collaborators for Burning Man 2016.

We know, the survey takes a bit of time to fill out (~half an hour). So why do we make it so long, and why do we care so much about getting so much data? Well, we’ll tell you now, it’s not for our own health (while we’re nerdy, we’re still somewhat sane). One reason is that we can’t tell our own story of BRC without knowing who is at the event from year to year. Having good data helps us to write our annual report, speak about Burning Man, write Journal posts, and share out our story on social media. And it’s not just BRC Census or the Burning Man Project who want to share our story with the world; many media outlets do, too.

We think it’s important that those stories accurately reflect the community who make up the city from year to year. We can’t help ensure the accuracy of the newspapers, magazines and blogs that talk about who we are as a whole without using Census data to describe the city’s population. Census data is also crucial to the survival of the event because it is used for official government reports such as those that go to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Pershing County, Washoe County, and the Nevada State Government.

So far, the reasons we’ve provided explain the need for demographic data. Most media outlets and permit requests ask about the average age of Burners, where we’re from, the percentage of men and women, and other basic information. So why does the Census survey also ask about other things like transformative experiences, relationship and/or sexual behavior, and your favorite ways to play at Burning Man? The Census project is a collaboration between the Burning Man organization and volunteers, including academic researchers studying a wide variety of subjects. Some of those researchers will be introducing themselves and their projects in future blog posts, so if any of those topics sound especially interesting to you, keep an eye out for those posts!

How Does Census Collect Its Data?

So, now that you know why the Census project matters, perhaps you’re curious about how we collect data. Well, for the last few years, the online survey has been the primary data collection method for Black Rock City Census. This is why it helps us to have many (dare we dream, most?!) of the Burners who attended the event fill out the survey. We then combine the online survey data with data collected on-playa (see below). This lets us produce reports about the entire population of Black Rock City, not just the subset of the population who took the time to complete the online survey.

In order to report findings about all Black Rock City residents, we can’t rely solely on the online survey responses. We know that some groups of Burners are more likely to take the time to fill out the online survey, and those groups end up over-represented in our initial survey results. To compensate for this, we use the data gathered on-playa to adjust (or, in layman’s terms, give a little bit more “weight” to the responses of) groups who are under-represented in the online survey. Using this method, we can report on all residents of Black Rock City, not just the online survey respondents.

So, how do we collect data on playa? The answer is simple: dusty nerds in lab coats!


Our playa volunteers brave extreme weather conditions every single day, from before the Gate opens until the day before the Man burns, to talk with and collect basic demographic data from randomly-selected participants entering Black Rock City via the main Gate, the Airport, and Burner Express buses. That random selection process is really, really, really! important to statisticians, and it’s why we’re really grateful to all the Burners who helped us out as they were entering Black Rock City. Without the on-playa data, we wouldn’t be able to say that our findings represent BRC as a whole.

Although the random sample is critical for talking about the entire population of BRC, the online survey is still our primary data collection tool. This is where you come in. Our current response rate is pretty high (1 out of every 6-7 people in 2014 and 2015 filled out the survey), but you could help us to make it even higher by providing your data and sending the link out to your friends and family who attended Burning Man 2016.

If you’d like to learn more (and who doesn’t want to know more about dusty nerds in lab coats?!), check out our previous blog post for a more detailed description of our methodology. If you’re curious about who went to Burning Man in 2016, stay tuned to the Burning Man Journal, where we’ll be publishing our results once they are complete. You can also explore our archived data on the Burning Man website. If you are interested in donning a lab coat yourself, consider signing on as a volunteer with BRC Census!

Just don’t forget, come to your Census and fill out the survey! (And definitely before October 15!)

(Top photo: Black Rock Observatory by Gregg Fleishman, Tom Varden, Scott Parenteau and the Desert Wizards of Mars, photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

About the author: Census Team

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.

11 Comments on “Why Should You Fill Out Your BRC Census? Because It Matters

  • Thingamajik says:

    Census is great. But this year, the census seems incredibly longer than the last few years’…

    30-40min is super long with lots of non-Census related questions. I remember that last year the additional survey questions were fielded at the census office and not in the actual census.

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    • Hunter, lead data analyst at the Census Lab says:

      Hi Thingamajik,
      The survey is in fact shorter than last year, but we understand that you wish that the survey would take less than half an hour to fill out. The online survey includes research questions since many years and we try each year to find a balance between covering the important topics and making the survey as short as possible. As you mention, we indeed have a qualitative research project on playa at the Census Lab with questions concerning different topics. You can read more about that project here (https://blackrockcitycensus.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/analog-census-what-does-the-burning-man-mean-to-you/). However, that project cannot totally replace the research questions in the online survey.

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  • Myztico Campo says:

    Hi BM,
    I began to fill out the census but did not get a chance to complete. I went to my profile and do not see a link to continue where I left off. How can I get back to it without starting all over again?

    Report comment

    • Hunter, lead data analyst at the Census Lab says:

      Hi Myztico Campo,
      There is sadly no way to get back to your partially completed survey. To insure confidentiality, we do not collect IP addresses and we do not link your survey to your burner profile. The drawback is, as you experienced, that your answers are not saved until you submit them at the end.
      My apologies for the inconvenience.

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  • Dr Helix says:

    I understand nuts and bolts questions (vehicles used, how many years etc) but this is WAAAAY to much information we are being asked to supply.

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  • Forever Young says:

    Please make the census easier to find!! It’s almost impossible to find unless you follow a link from Facebook or an email

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  • Brother Michael says:

    I agree with the rest. The census takes too long to complete and it deters many from taking it. Would it not be better to ask fewer questions and have a greater number of people filling them out?

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  • julie covello says:

    how about some “required” questions and some “optional” questions

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  • Paul says:

    Hello Census….two things…1) can you send me an email address where I can write BMORG regarding thoughts on BLM presence the past two years? 2) Also, due to some emergencies I missed the Oct 15 census deadline. Is it sill possible to participate? If so, what is the link? Thank you!

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    • Census Team says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for checking in! Unfortunately, now that the deadline has passed there is no way to add your data to this year’s online survey. We started working on data analysis as soon as the survey closed on October 15th.

      For comments about BLM presence, I would suggest submitting a 2016 Law Enforcement Feedback form at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/2933393/2016-Burning-Man-Law-Enforcement-Feedback-Form – this format may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but any data you submit will be routed to the appropriate people.

      Thanks for your interest in BRC Census!

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