Downtime: Heather Gallagher takes a rare break at the annual Burning Man festival. Photo: Susan Karlin
Every year, around the beginning of September, tens of thousands of people go out into Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the annual Burning Man festival. Amid the windy, dusty, tent-strewn desert expanse, where bicycles are the main method of transportation and cellphones barely work, Burning Man belies a vast technological infrastructure.
The tip of the techberg is Heather “CameraGirl” Gallagher. As Burning Man’s director of technology, she oversees teams working on physical layout, network engineering, Web development, system integration, and more.
“It’s good when people don’t know how much technology goes into making Burning Man happen; good technology is tech you don’t see,” she says. “It’s great that people think there’s just tents, but this is a city with amazingly complex business needs and operations happening all the time.”
Since its modest beginnings on a San Francisco beach 30 years ago, the annual arts and experimental community event has evolved into a weeklong desert city of 67,000. Meanwhile the organization itself has become a global nonprofit that has outreach and regional branches.
Gallagher plans Burning Man’s tech needs two years into the future, but she projects as far as five. “The Burning Man event is a very small slice of my very large pizza, although it’s the fun, dusty part,” says Gallagher. “We have Burning Man all year long, with events and community organizations around the world.”
For Burning Man itself, Gallagher heads to the desert in early August to direct a 30-member team. Burning Man regularly maxes out an 80-megabit-per-second microwave connection to its desert community, dubbed Black Rock City. This connection is fed to three radio transceivers that create the onsite network backbone. Bandwidth is distributed through the backbone to approximately 45 internal-department customers and locations, and shared with another 75 or more participant groups that can connect to the network with their own equipment.
“Out here, we’re one of the first operations to set up and function as a utility company bringing the Internet and communications to the city,” says Gallagher. “My job is to get it to a place where we can go into maintenance mode for the week.” Once the week is over, the desert must then be restored to pristine emptiness.
In 1995, Burning Man first used microwave equipment to beam a T1 Internet connection from a motel room in the nearby town of Gerlach. Currently Burning Man gives Gerlach residents free use of a 60-Mb/s connection year-round. But during burn season, that bandwidth gets ramped up to 80 Mb/s to support the construction and setup teams; the media team; the Black Rock Rangers (trained liaisons between the general population and law enforcement); Black Rock City Airport and its FAA-approved temporary runway; a radio station; and emergency services, ticket scanning, and attendee registration. Databases handle work flow, fuel tracking, and billing.
Before committing to new systems, Gallagher needs to ensure they will be viable for several years. “One of the more interesting aspects of my job is talking people out of using technology,” says Gallagher. “If your clipboard and pencil are getting it done, let’s start there.”
Gallagher earned a bachelor’s in computer information systems at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va., in 1992, followed by a master’s in computer science from George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., in 1993.
From there, she worked as a telecommunications systems architect and integration consultant. A 1999 move to San Francisco landed her, through friends, among veteran Burning Man attendees. Her first burn came the next year, and in 2001 Gallagher began doing photography for Burning Man, prompting her “CameraGirl” moniker. Soon, she was coordinating the entire photography team and producing the Burning Man calendar. In 2003, she joined Burning Man’s IT staff full-time.
For those drawn by the lure of working on Burning Man, Gallagher is currently looking for more Wi-Fi network engineers to support desert operations, as well as year-round assistance from Web and database developers and administrators.
This article originally appeared in print as “Burning Man’s Tech Mastermind.”