While we don’t know for sure, since we don’t actually track these things, we’ll venture to say that Burning Man has one of the more labor-intensive Lost and Found systems among events of its size and ilk. Ours is done by hand, and is supported by a small team of dedicated volunteers who work during, as well as long after the event ends to reunite lost stuff with the … um … losers. Wait, that came out wrong.
If you’ve lost something on playa, and it was turned in to Playa Info, it’s now sharing a small office on Burning Man HQ’s 8th floor with Lauren, Lois, Bobalou, Phil, Carolyn or Matty, who are busy sorting, cataloging, and finding YOU, its rightful owner (let’s use that term, shall we?).
“This room smells like playa and sweat … every time you come in here, you really get a powerful whiff of home,” says Lois. This is Lois’s first year doing Lost and Found for Burning Man. She came intending to stay two days, and she’s been here over two weeks now … and she doesn’t know when she’ll stop. “I’m having a great time,” she says with a big smile, as she adds photos from people’s lost cameras to our Flickr set (which people use to identify their cameras). This is a big change from when we’d have to get people’s film developed (remember those days?), scan some key pictures, and post them on our website. With the advent of digital technologies, things have become exponentially easier.
A long-time Playa Info volunteer, Bobalou has been working on Burning Man’s Lost and Found for (ready for this?) 11 years. “Here’s where we store people’s IDs and wallets, so you can be sure they’re safe and not going anywhere,” he says, tapping a small suitcase next to him, secured with a combination lock. Burners being Burners, of course there’s a fair amount of valuable belongings (including cash) that gets turned into Lost and Found.
“A lot more items were turned in this year than ever before … we’ve seen a big jump in the number of smart phones especially,” said Terry Schoop, Burning Man’s Community Services Manager. “We had 320 ‘gadgets’ (phones, cameras, walkie-talkies, etc.) this year, up from 215 in 2010. We charge them and plug them in to see who owns them, and we’ve learned that Verizon (at least) will take them and send them back to their owners, which is pretty cool. If we find the owners on our own, we ship them back and people reimburse us for shipping.”
“Volunteer Brillig created a database for us to catalog items more easily on site. It makes for less typos in the item categories and descriptions, since it uses drop-down menus,” Terry says. Items getting sorted and sifted include backpacks, cameras, phones, wallets, IDs, goggles, glasses, walkie-talkies, jewelry, clothing, costume bits, and random miscellany of all kinds (as you can imagine). Bins of them fill every nook, cranny and corner of the overstuffed office … and only by finding their owners will the team make more room for themselves. Volunteer Lauren really stepped up this year and is looking at this process holistically, creating a new manual strictly for the Lost and Found process – from intake to return – and all the steps in between.
The crew works like private detectives, looking up people’s names in Facebook, finding them through Google, or other random sources like the Verizon store … this is the fun part of the job. (Of course, it’s easier to find you if you labeled your belongings with your name and identifying information.) “It’s really satisfying reuniting people with their lost things, but unfortunately they pick their stuff up from Rachel upstairs, so we don’t get to see them in person. Ah well,” Lois shrugs.
If you’re looking for something you’ve lost, email a description of it to firstname.lastname@example.org … the team will be happy to go to work on it for you. But be quick about it, we stop the effort when Burning Man tickets go on sale in January.