Burning Man Gets an API (and a Whole Lot More)

bm iphone app

An API! SMS! Foursquare! An iPhone app! They are all coming to Burning Man this year. Will the festival be the same?

The annual tech-art festival in the Nevada desert, starts on Sunday. Normally the attendees leave their phones and laptop behind, but this year that may not be the case. As I ride from Seattle to Black Rock City, NV I am getting SMS from friends on the playa. In anticipation of wifi and possible data connections Foursquare has rolled out Black Rock City as a city (@sfslim is already the Mayor of The Man). If AT&T’s service doesn’t work then attendees may be able to take advantage of OpenBTS’s local SMS project. Most of the attendees aren’t there, but the tech is already making its presence known.

Burning Man is dismissed as a party by many people (attendees and non-attendees alike), but for many it is a unique opportunity to try out new software. Geohackers in particular find it to be a great playground. Black Rock City is a full city complete with a fire department, stores (where you can buy coffee, tea or ice bags), a Main drag and 40,000+ residents. However, since it is only around for a week each year (and is always in a new location) there is not time (or profit) for commercial companies to map it. The process falls to the community and they take advantage of the opportunity (and sites like Flickr use the resulting commercial-grade data).

This year the Burning Man organization is assisting with the launch of an API. With the API you get access to descriptions and locations of the Streets, Art, Camps and Events. When combined with a map this is everything you need for a local city guide. And that is exactly what the iPhone app does (it’s not available in the app store; if you want it head to the Burning Man Earth Camp next to Media Mecca — be nice). It maps all of those entities, will geolocate you and let you mark favorites (see the screenshot from my iPhone). You can learn more about the API project here. Burning Man still has its Virtual Playa project online.

There is also a move to take advantage of Flickr’s machine tags. For example if you take a picture of Area 47 (with the online directory entry: http://earth.burningman.com/brc/2009/themecamp/2234/) then use burningman:camp=2234. The photo will appear on that locations page. We will see how many photos end up using these machine tags. I suspect that V2 of the iPhone app will add a camera that can apply those tags automatically and that we’ll see more uptake then.

Burning Earth team member, Tom Longson, sent me the following.

Burning Man’s theme this year is evolution which is fitting as Burning Man Earth launches an online directory, API, and a beta iPhone App. The group of artists, geo-wankers, and software developers are rapidly deploying systems, both off and on the Black Rock Desert playa to help participants find each other, schedule events, find theme camps, and artwork. It is a digital project aimed at providing better maps, and an online space to describe the community and art.

The open source webapp, named “Earth”, builds upon Open Street Map, GeoDjango, and Pinax to create an easy to use, mapping interface for the event. Coupled with Jeffrey Johnson’s prior work with aerial photography, and Andrew Johnstone’s virtual playa 3D modeling, the platform is rapidly evolving to become an important part of the organization of the event.

Burning Man’s API now opens the door for developers and artists alike to remix and reuse data about the event. For example, you could plot all the events in the next hour, build an Arduino belt that vibrated in the direction of the closest piece of artwork, or a web service for rating theme camps.

In addition, Mikel Maron is championing machine-tags to allow the project to couple Earth’s database with other websites, such as Flickr. By integrating machine tags, people can say on Flickr what art installation their photo is of, and Earth will automatically pull up that photo. Likewise, Flickr will provide a link to the page describing the artwork itself.

Beyonds enabling mashups, the APIs are the foundation for the new beta iPhone app, which serves as both a directory and enhanced GPS designed for Burning Man. A small number of participants will get to try out the app, which will be in full production next year.

While it may sound like fun and games, the harsh conditions of the Black Rock Desert make the system a perfect testbed for mapping temporary places, people, and things. In this same way, these tools may just be the next best thing for helping disaster hit regions react and respond. Burning Man Earth is more than just an attempt at radical self-expression, self-reliance, and community building. It may just be a tool for tomorrow.

This is Burning Man at its best. Letting people create something just for the festival and its attendees. The question becomes how will the larger Burning Man community, expecting a cellphone free vacation, react to intrusions from the real-world?

BTW, If you are on the playa you may be able to find me at my group art project Steve the Robot H.E.A.i.D.

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