The Engineering team continues to build and maintain custom software tools to support the Burning Man organization and community, including all the dynamic applications running on the website and the internal collaboration tool, the Extranet. The team made excellent progress in 2005 performing annual updates as well as deploying new tools and tackling new development projects.
The underlying software of the ePlaya was upgraded and some new features installed. The modifications were timed with a reorganization of the discussion board and a switch to community moderation. New features gave users increased control over their experience and content. Community moderation was intended to make the ePlaya experience more like a participants’ experience on the real playa and to reduce the amount of time staff members were spending resolving interpersonal issues. The upgrades went successfully and the new features were added without impacting the performance or stability of the application. A member of the eplaya community has stepped up to help maintain the underlying software, and several training sessions have been held, though Engineering staff are still heavily involved in the upgrades and in the selection process for new features.
The online playa calendar is a moderated entry tool for participants to enter events scheduled to happen at Burning Man. Prior to the event, a download of this data is edited to become the printed WhatWhereWhen guide, which is handed to each participant at the Greeters Station. Following the procedures from the previous year, the process was relatively free of problems.
A new policy was formed for creating and maintaining subdomains of BurningMan.com and is in testing. A number of new domains now serve various teams. The most notable new domain, http://financials.burningman.com, provides content outlining Burning Man’s financial state.
After thorough requirements gathering and technical analysis, the team launched a new weblog for Burning Man entitled Traces. The project’s initial goal was to support the ever popular “Building Black Rock City” feature in the website’s Burning Man Year Round section. Additional goals include eventual expansion of the feature to tell more of the behind-the-scenes story of the event and community. A few technical snafus marred the launch; while on playa the team found out the hard way that those maintaining the blog could accidentally delete all their photos – yikes! Despite challenges, this site was successfully launched and used to chronicle the building of BRC for 2005, including work weekends and site restoration activities after the event.
The team wrote new code for the countdown on the home page. When you click on the countdown, a new page shows the time until the next burn in seconds. Another link lets users open a small pop-up window that ticks continuously for those who want to keep up-to-the- second tabs on how long they have to wait until we all get to gather in the desert again.
Updates to the “page not found” error pages improved their usefulness by suggesting the site map and offering search. Tweaks also affected the site layout.
A data entry survey was created to capture data from the 2004 census forms. A crack team of volunteers, lead by several project managers from the Web team used the tool to enter the form data into the system, and thus into a MySQL database, making it useful for analysis, sorting, and reporting.
The Image Gallery and Playa Artifacts systems received a few tweaks. The code base was standardized, headers were updated, and some alignment changes were made. A new tool for the back-end upload of playa artifacts images now smoothes the process of documenting artifacts gathered at the event.
Engineering team members conducted a number of training sessions as part of the twice yearly volunteer intake for both new and existing volunteers. Topics have covered CSS, XHTML, templates, the team’s change request and bug tracker called the Collector, CVS, and the Extranet. Sometimes one-on-one trainings are also conducted.
In an attempt to make the Web team meetings more accessible to remote volunteers, the team added IRC, webcam, and new technologies for voice over internet protocol (VOIP). This technological armory has helped people far away to participate and feel more a part of the process than they would simply by reading the Web team email list. The tools and processes learned from the initial uses of these technologies will be shared with the rest of the staff, so that they may also promote active participation from remote team members.
For the second year in 2005, participants interacted with Burning Man via the custom questionnaire system. The system needed considerable work to enable it to handle the next year’s questionnaires without impacting any of the data from the previous year. The questionnaires launched smoothly and on-time. A small number of bugs arose during the process, but the Engineering team provided support for users to ensure accurate capture of all data.
The same questionnaire engine serves as the full application workflow processing mechanism for Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). The back-end processing tools underwent considerable improvement, based on the feedback that the DMV Hotties provided from their first year of use. The system’s performance was improved considerably, and a large number of useful features were added to further support the DMV’s process. Additionally, the Engineering team provided daily on-playa service to the DMV to ensure that the system was meeting their needs during the crucial final intake and registration process.
The Engineering team had a busy, rewarding year in 2005, especially since this work sets the stage for effective performance by so many others. The bulk of this work must happen in the “off season” and challenges continue, such as getting volunteers trained and able to contribute in the very complex area of engineering. Core staff is often so busy trying to meet deadlines or focusing on mission critical tasks that they don’t have the bandwidth to manage volunteers through exceedingly complex tasks. Despite the challenges, the dedicated team rocks out to support the organization, while knowing that some areas will always need improvement or attention in the future.
Tom (Spanky) Kapanka and Rob (Ra) Miller,