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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  • Kat

    My geek side is intrigued by this. Im interested in this as a “just BRC only network” without connection to any external news/social/or other media sources.

    When it comes to getting wrapped up in tech (taking photos on my camera, getting in contact with friends), there are mixed feelings. I like the fact that my phone service goes down to nothing by the time I reach Gerlach and its outer edge. To me, BM is a chance for me to disconnect and keep remembering how important human connection is when experiencing it right in front of you, not locked in a box or device.

    Ill be interested to find out more about this, whether online before playa or maybe if I spot one of you guys.

  • http://rubin.starset.net Rubin110

    Kat: The new meme this year is to Twitter from the man base. In fact I’m writing you this right now as I touch the man. :)

  • SF Mark

    Thanks for the mental picture of someone tweeting while touching the Man – “I’m scratching myself while touching the Man!”. So the Human Disconnect has reached the playa, it was only a matter of time. We can now all chatter on our cells, tweet, text and update our facebooks from the playa while blithly ignoring the real people and world around us- just we do in what used to be called the default world. But resistance was indeed futile, the Borg won in the end and even Burning Man was assimilated into the default world. Congratulations on the great leap forward-

  • http://artpredator.wordpress.com art predator

    have you seen the iPhone app? is it like the one leaked earlier this year? did I miss the link for more info or do I need to go to Media Mecca for it?

    come visit us in Kidsville! there’s talk of a tweet up at the Man also!

  • bowerbird

    everyone stopped going to burning man
    years ago because it got so darn crowded.

    “thousands of people!, it’s gotten ridiculous!”

    but now that we can go and _ignore_
    all those people right in front of me
    and watch it on a box, we might be
    interested in attending once again…

    -bowerbird

  • Paul Boos

    This closing remark from the quote surely says what being in a world community, one that is high tech, is all about; if this isn’t potentially helping others, I don’t know what is. Hopefully the work and lessons learned to make this successful will be shared in public so everyone can take advantage of this.

    “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.”

  • alphabitch

    Who says that you can’t stay disconnected? Before we didn’t have a say in the matter once that magical line in the road was crossed we were out of the loop. Now we all have a choice to hit that power button or not. Which will you do?

  • http://askurb.com cosmic connector

    turn off your cellphone and leave it in your car! it is a little creepy having your 3g phone work at the man.. i just hope the network fails once people get there.

  • http://Www.lailaniali.blogspot.com Lailani

    It’s strange to me that people who want to appreciate beauty, art, and a giving community should be expected to embrace the outlook of Luddites. Why? Why should I leave my emails unanswered for a week when I can sit in my tent in the middle of a desert and let my sister know that I’m fine? Really- sunburned and wind-blown, but happy and peaceful. It seems backwards and desperate to me to think of wanting to be completely disconnected from the outside world when I have it available to me.

  • Brandymanjoe

    I don’t see the need to stay connected to the world outside of Burning Man….it is one of the reasons I come here…not to be tethered to a cell phone or e-mail on the comp…or see others glued to their phones as they shout to their friends about how cool the events are and how messed up they got the night before….or conduct business-let it all go for a week and connect only with lively, living souls right in front of you and enjoy the experience. I know it will bug me to see thousands of people chatting into their little flip-ups and nearly running into me unaware. Think folks!

  • jash

    Um, it’s pretty obvious that there would be a step up in tech this year…It’s called Evolution…

  • exburner

    Don’t forget that Playa dust is notoriously rough on electronic gear. It gets *everywhere*

  • http://asynchronous.org/ jsled

    “Store”, not “stores”. Unless something drastic changed in the years since I’ve gone, you can only exchange money at one place for two things: center camp, for coffee and ice.

  • Mizchvus

    Because I am not a techy…. does this mean we can actually talk on our cell phones to find friends on the playa? Walkies suck!

  • http://truefalsemaybe.com/ nym

    @mizchvus … most likely not, bring your radio if you want to communicate without yelling.

  • Ian

    It seems that many here are concerned that increased tech on the playa will havbe a negative impact on the event (or experiencing the event). I would mention that just because something is available to you, it doesn’t mean that YOU have to use it. Is your trip to Burning Man about ensuring everyone fits into your little box of what a “burner” is? Or is it more about radical SELF expression, ie. the expression of who I am, not YOU.

    My life is filled with tech. My music, my job, my lifestyle is surrounded by tech. If I choose to utilize technology on the Playa, I’m not using it to “chatter on our cells, tweet, text and update our facebooks from the playa while blithly ignoring the real people and world around us- just we do in what used to be called the default world”

    Brandymanjoe writes, “I know it will bug me to see thousands of people chatting into their little flip-ups and nearly running into me unaware. Think folks!” I ask you this Brandymanjoe, should I attend the burn to satisfy YOUR expectations, or my own? I persoanlly would find it hilarious (and thought provoking) to flashmob centercamp at the hottest point of the day with a thousand people in business attire chattering on cellphones about their mundane lives. But to each their own, it just proves to me once again that those that self identify as “THE MOST INTO SOMETHING”, are the ones with the most closed minds.

  • http://www.myspace.com/artmodeldave The Dave

    For something as “progressive” as burning man, I was rather surprised to see so little technology on the playa. I understand that the dust is techno-killer, but there must be ways to protect your assets, like keeping everything sealed and using cordless charging and data transfer…

    If you’re in the techy-camp for burners, tell me this. Why hasnt anyone set up a vehicle that operates like the car that takes street-footage for google-maps? Panorama view on a recording device with GPS to give a full tour of BRC. You set it up, and I’ll drive the thing. I will commit to driving two full circuit around the playa of data-logging for this project.

    I can understand the concern of linking BRC to the outside, but what about those on the inside? My first burn was incredibly disorganized. This was a huge part of what made it cool, except that I kept hearing about camps and events that I couldnt find or didnt hear about in time. I’d love an intranet at BRC that’d show me what people are finding and get me there.

  • http://www.koffietmolentje.be Koffie 't Molentje

    I’m following the Burning Man online every year but i hope some day i’ll be able to be there myself since there is a lot to learn from all the software!