Placing camps at Burning Man

One of the toughest challenges the Burning Man staff face is placing all the camps in the city. This stopped being an anarchy long ago, and the city is mapped and each camp given a precise area. The city has various “premium” locations which are valued in part for being close to things but mainly because they are high traffic for camps showing off interesting art or interactivity. Far more camps want to be in the premium locations than there is room, and almost everybody serious wants to be pre-placed somewhere so they can plan in advance and not have to race in the land-rush when the event officially opens.

(Some people like the land-rush. While you will not get a spot very close to the Esplanade or be able to be on the maps and calendars by address, you will get a bigger space for your group, because it’s “take what you dare.”)

Camps submit applications (this year by the start of May) describing the contribution they will offer the city, where they would like to be, and how much space they need. A team of placers (mostly volunteers with a few paid leaders) try to allocate the camps. They try to be fair, but the process is largely opaque, so any biases and mistakes are not generally visible to the community.

The process takes time, and the placement last year was announced to the community in early August, just a few weeks before the event. Camps are told only their approximate street location, and their dimensions. For reasons few have been able to fathom, the actual precise map, showing who is on corners and who is next to whom, is kept secret until the event itself. Many factors go into the decision, including camp density, past reputations, the various prime locations available, camps that want or don’t wan’t to be next to other camps, loudness and quality and interactivity of the art in the camp.

In 2009, the placers decided something which was a fairly big surprise to the community. They decided not to place around 120 of the camps that applied at all. Those camps were left to the land-rush, which meant a few distressing things for them:

  • They could not arrive in the city before the opening to set up; some had rather extensive structures to build.
  • They could not know where they would be in advance, so they could not tell their address to people in advance, or put it in the city calendar which is handed out at the gate.

The placement team decided not to place these camps because they did not want to find themselves placing the majority of the city. They wanted the city to retain some randomness and made a decision that only a limited fraction of the city would be subject to mapping in advance. If too many camps applied, those who did not make the cut would not be placed. This decision caused some controversy, and there are arguments for both sides. In addition to the non-placements, there were also many camps surprised by their placement (usually negatively) and, as would be expected in any large volunteer effort, a modest number of mistakes.

To my view, the biggest issue was the fact that camps learned of the placement with just a few week’s notice. Some camps had put in considerable effort that needed to be re-worked. Combined with the usual pre-event stress, some camps suffered damage or even fell apart. Some came to the event disappointed at not being able to realize plans, or knowing they would share what they brought with far fewer people.

To fix this, the application deadline was moved up one month for 2010, and presumably the publication of the results will also be moved up. This is good, but I believe that there are more worthwhile steps.

Transparency

While Burning Man is a private corporation, it is also a community. There are many merits to increasing the transparency in the placement process, so that people understand it better, and there are checks and balances against errors and surprises. However, it can be hard to convince volunteers to work in a transparent system, because it can mean dealing with angry campers who were not placed as they would like and more public debate. This is a must for things like public officials, but it is harder get volunteers to subject to it.

Nonetheless I believe it makes sense to publish a little more about the system by which camps are assigned, so that camps know what to do an what to expect. One of the values of transparency is that it means fewer surprises, and it is the surprises that cause much of the trouble. However, this also gives people more things to complain about, as they will be sure that their interpretation of the published rules was not followed.

In particular, I believe the precise city map should be published when it is ready. Many years, we have tried to find out who our neighbours will be so that we can arrange things with them. The two most common things we have arranged are sharing of a large generator, which is a big win for the camps and for the city, and shared roads along the border-lines. (Every camp needs a road into the camp for various vehicles to get in and out during the week, which means a 10’ wide open swath is cut into the camp. Sharing a road can mean taking only 5’ from each camp along the border. It also means the border is not just car-against-car 1’ apart.)

In the past we’ve been able to convince the placers to reveal some information to help us do this but it has required effort and convincing and a vow of secrecy. It’s hard to fathom the reason for such secrecy — I presume it is to give the placers the opportunity to make tweaks after releasing the basic results. They have a fear, perhaps of giving people an exact placement and then telling them they are changing it. I think the value of the secrecy is not enough to justify it.

Knowing as soon as possible

Even if the placement algorithm is to remain opaque, I believe much could be done by releasing information in stages. In particular, when a camp files its application, I would propose the placement team attempt to give it a “rough score” as quickly as possible. The rough score would indicate, roughly, how highly the camp’s proposal was valued. In addition, a list would be published, very much subject to change, of what various rough scores are likely to mean. For example, the list might say, “Scores of X points are highly likely to be placed wherever they want.” and “Scores of Y points are close to the borderline between Esplanade and wedge — prepare for either.”

In particular, I propose that camps be able to apply early — even very early — and get their score quickly. More organized camps could get rough ideas long before the application deadline. Camps that apply early could be scored quickly as there is no crush, and as a result, more and more camps would apply earlier reducing the deadline rush greatly.

As more camps are scored, this “likely result” list would get updated, and people would have to expect it to be updated frequently, especially the first time, and especially before the deadline. A camp’s application might look great, but then 50 camps might come in with superior plans, pushing that camp to a lower choice. After the deadline and initial scoring, the list of what the scores mean would become much more firm, and scores that are assured Esplanade would almost surely get it, and scores declared to be in the border zone would really be in the border zone.

In particular, camps which did not score well enough to get any placement at all would learn this quite quickly, and be able to plan around it with several months notice. The placement team would also work to try to solidify the status on camps in the “you may or may not get a placement” zone.

In addition, all camps should be encouraged to file a “rough” application as soon as possible. A rough application would just specify an approximate camp size and rough description of the quality of the art and interactivity in the camp, as well as desired locations. This would in fact be required at a certain point for camps asking for premium space like Esplanade. The rough description might be something as simple as “Hi, we did camp X on the Esplanade last year and we plan at least as much art and need 150’ of frontage and 45,000 square feet.” Placers would take the applicant at their word, and assign a temporary rough score based on it. This rough score would let the placers know quickly just how much demand to expect for the major areas of the city.

Refining your application

In this system, it would be possible for camps to revise their applications, and there would be a strong push to do so from camps that did not get scored where they liked. In particular, the most obvious way to revise an application would be to reduce the space demanded, which would generally increase the score.

There are arguments in both directions on this. Many people are bothered by the “no appeal” rules demanded by the late release of results — there isn’t time to rearrange the city with just a few weeks left. Allowing camps to revise their applications or appeal their scores means extra work for the placement team, and more contention. On the other hand, there can be positive feedback, with camps learning they must do more to get what they want, and making them do that.

It’s also possible that the score could be published with some fixed rules about the size (frontage and total area) requested. As in, “If you cut your frontage to 100’ your score will increase by X.” Such changes should not affect the results much. Their higher score will get them better placement, but they will take less space there, making room for more camps.

Appeal

In addition, a special revision that is possible is an appeal. People make mistakes, especially volunteer teams. It is folly to assume they won’t make mistakes, and all good systems try to have a way to recover from and correct mistakes. One of the advantages of an early-scoring system is the ability to do this. On the other hand, if too many people appeal it is too time consuming.

One approach, which many people may find “un-burning-man” would be to have a fee for appeals and revisions, to cover the cost of placement staff evaluating them. If the appeal is deemed a reasonable one, even if it is denied, the fee would be refunded. I would venture that even a modest fee would make people think twice about appeals and the workload for them would become small — and almost all the fees would be refunded. Only people clearly wasting the time of the placement team would face an un-burning-man surcharge.

Likewise for re-applications, everybody would be getting their first application for free, just as today. It is only those who want to constantly re-apply who would face a charge — something you can’t do at all right now. Camps that were good and applied early should get modest revisions with no charge as a reward for applying early. Camps that waited to the deadline would be under more strict rules about revising their plans, and big revisions after the “likely result” list is declared stabilized would be frowned upon.

Self-arranging blocks

Camps with similar scores could also declare they would like to form a block or neighbourhood. Not quite a full village, these blocks would nonetheless get to arrange themselves within the block as they see fit, though each camp would be entitled to the frontage and space their score allocates them. The camps within the loose village would decide who is next to whom, and who is on the corners. If they can’t work that out quickly, the loose village would be disbanded and the duty of doing this would revert to the placement team.

This would reduce the placement workload and allow much easier sharing of resources like power, showers, roads, water, stages and so on.

Final placement

Once the scores had stabilized, placers could begin the actual mapping. If a good “likely result” list was released earlier, like early July or even June, they could wait much longer on the final results, and inform camps whose result changes quickly. If it is necessary to keep the exact lines secret, this can be done, though I think there is less need for this.

City Zones

While this is a subjective thing, here is how I rank the zones of the city in terms of how attractive they are to camps. Some camps differ — they don’t want to be on the Esplanade at all. And the large scale sound art camps (loud camps) both want to be placed where they can do this and are forced to be placed where they can do this, so they are in their own special category.

  1. Premium (5:40 to 6:20)
  2. Inner Esplanade (4:30 to 7:30)
  3. Outer Esplanade (2:30 to 4:30, 7:30 to 9:30)
  4. Wedges (3,9,4:30, 7:30)
  5. Center Camp
  6. 3 and 9 plazas
  7. 4:30 radial and 7:30 radial, and 6 beyond center camp
  8. Outer loop around center camp
  9. 3 and 9 beyond the plazas.
  10. Deep 4:30 and 7:30 (including art plazas)
  11. Inner concentrics (A,B,C,D) near the major radials
  12. Inner concentrics near any radial
  13. Inner concentrics (A, B) not near a radial

This ordering is based on a rough estimate of traffic combined with convenience of reaching the playa and other parts of the city. Some camps have very different priorities. Some don’t want to be in high traffic at all, they prefer something quiet. Some would rather be more central and further back. It would be interesting to do a survey to see how other people value the various location zones, though in general they also say this on their camp applications and as such the process involves giving high-scoring camps what they want for themselves rather than an objective notion of what is most desired.

The list above gives a heavy weight to Esplanade. Some might like plazas or center camp or even the outer ring of center camp more. Esplanade offers not just traffic and display space, but also a greater feeling of participation in the “action on the playa.” If an event on the Esplanade develops a crowd, for example, everybody on the playa or Esplanade is able to see it and be attracted by it; this is not true deeper in the city.

A Rough Calendar

  • Feb 1: Camps can begin filing applications. Scores likely to come back quite quickly.
  • Mar 1: Rough applications desired from camps in premium spaces.
  • Apr 1: Rough applications needed for camps wanting premium space.
  • May 1: Most camps are expected to have filed at this point. Initial “likely result” list released a few days after.
  • Jun 1: Only minor revisions allowed. Camps can still file after this but will suffer a late-filing score penalty which increases with the lateness of the filing. Hard deadline for camps seeking premium space.
  • Jun 15. Deadline for all other camps. Scoring takes as long as it takes.
  • July 1: Fairly firm likely result list published. Camps that will not be placed now know it. Camps that will not get Esplanade now know it.
  • Jul 15: Deadline for appeals and revisions
  • Aug 7: Actual city map. Emergency appeals only.

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