Anatomy of a BRC Census Survey, Plus Preliminary 2019 Results

By Sarah “Picky” Williamson and Dana “DV8” DeVaul

It’s that time of year again, y’all. Time to: power-wash the rig and gear after that much-needed break; find some new and interesting coping mechanisms to combat that decompression; and start planning to do it all over again 300-ish days from now. And most importantly: it’s time to fill out your 2019 Black Rock City Census survey, which closes on October 21.

Black Rock City Census has operated on playa for the last 17 years, where we gather information from BRC citizens on who they are and what their experiences were on the playa that year. Tracking changes in BRC’s population, behavior and attitudes means that the Burning Man Project is better equipped to understand the community and its needs.

If you’re one of the amazing people who participates every year without needing to be convinced, thank you! You can learn about some of our preliminary 2019 results in this post. If you haven’t taken the survey before and want to know what to expect, keep reading for a “sneak peek” of the questions you’ll encounter in the survey.

Part 1: Demographics (e.g. the maybe-somewhat-boring-but-important stuff)

The Census survey is pretty straightforward. After we get your informed consent, it begins with demographics — how old are you, where do you call home (other than BRC, of course), how many times have you been to BRC, that kind of thing.

This part includes all the questions we ask those we randomly sample, so we actually already know a bit about who was on the playa in 2019! (For more about the random sample and other details about our methodology, check this past blog post).

For example, compared to 2018, it looks like 2019 participants:

  • were slightly older — an average of 36 years old, compared to 2018’s 34
  • had more trips to BRC under their belts — 24.5% [±1] of participants were virgins in 2019, down from 31.7% [±1.2] in 2018 (See Figure below)
  • reported greater political affiliation as Democratic — 56.9% [±1.4] in 2019, up from 50.1% [±1.4] in 2018.

Figure: Percentage of Participants in 2019 who were Burning Man Virgins or who had 11 or More Years of Attendance at Burning Man, 2013-2019

Notes: Percentages for 2019 are preliminary. Shaded bands indicate the upper and lower bounds of the 95% confidence intervals.

If all you have is a little bit of time, you can fill out Part 1 only and rest easy with the knowledge that you’ve been a big help! If you have a few extra minutes, though…

Part 2: Event Logistics (e.g. tell us about your Burn)

This section of the survey includes questions from a number of departments within the Burning Man organization, also known as Burning Man Project. These include questions about how you got to the event and your vehicle mileage (used to calculate carbon footprint, for example) or how much money you spent in Nevada state (a powerful data point when advocating for the event with Nevada locals!). Burner Express Bus passengers will also have a chance to give feedback about their BxB experience.

If you’ve gotten through this section, why stop now? In our opinion, the most interesting questions are yet to come.

Part 3: Questions From Research Collaborators (e.g. the fun stuff!)

Every year we collaborate with a number of academic researchers interested in understanding more about Black Rock City participants. Some of these collaborations are longstanding; for example, if you’ve filled out your Census before, you should recognize some questions about transformative experiences, altruism, and your reasons for attending the event.

Long-time Census researchers have also started some fascinating new projects recently, so you’ll notice some relatively new question sets. For example, A-Student (Annayah Prosser, University of Bath, who has also done work on the transformation project) started a project last year on environmental identities. Census Lead Analyst Hunter (Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost, Université du Québec à Montréal, who has done work on intimate experiences on playa) is starting a new project on feelings of safety and connectedness on playa this year.

Other collaborations are brand new this year. For example, veteran Census volunteer and now-Census researcher Cali Green (Jaimee Nix, University of Nevada, Las Vegas) is interested in learning more about participants’ feelings of connection to the Black Rock Desert and Black Rock City itself.

And finally, brand new Census researcher Mister Blink (David Blink, Boston University), the music director behind the Procession Band and the Ambient Drummers for Fire Conclave, is working on his dissertation, “The Contribution of Musicking to Liminality at Burning Man.” You can help him finish his work by answering his questions about your experiences creating, performing, or otherwise participating in musical activities on the playa and in the default world.

That’s it! It took you, what, half an hour to get through all those questions? Not too painful, right? You get our undying gratitude in return, and a shiny pink sticker if you come find us at San Francisco Decompression (while supplies last).


Top photo by Joonas “Allfish” Iivonen

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.

10 Comments on “Anatomy of a BRC Census Survey, Plus Preliminary 2019 Results

  • I’m a big fan of the data from part 2. I enjoy the surprises I find as I explore the detailed report.

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  • Janice says:

    While taking the survey I was curious about the several questions about what type of seafood I like to have shoved up my urethra. I don’t mind submitting personal information, but this seemed to go a bit far.

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  • Mark Telles says:

    Bravo to Census. I diligently fill out the entire survey every year. I appreciate the data, but I would love to see a clear, concise and unambiguous statement from BMorg once the final report is issued. Something along the lines of: “This is what you told us, so these are the changes we’re making.”
    One would think that with all this relevant information the organization would have something serious to tell us about culture and direction. I would hope that the data informs placement, annual BRC layout, allocation of resources, staffing, etc. It would be nice to know that our voices are being heard and that the big decisions are being made based directly on participant feedback. Wishful thinking?

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  • MegaWoman says:

    We bring our teenage children to the Burn, and they were disappointed that a) they themselves can’t participate in Census because they are underage and b) that there was no census information collected about specific ages of children that are at Burning Man

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  • splat says:

    I think the numbers on returning burners are important. I believe their energy regarding the spirit of burning is much more important than Instagram influencers creating appeal for wide/wild-eyed virgins looking to get as fucked up as possible and post pics.

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  • Swiss Miss says:

    I participated in disseminating the preliminary data results and we heard from a number of people about the difficulty of our decades-of-loyalty-veterans in getting tickets. I hope the org will take that into greater consideration.

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  • Fiver says:

    I have to wonder if the age demographic shifting is more a fact that older people are more likely to take the time to fill out the survey….

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