28% Veterans: Virgin Import Continues [Update]

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” – Mark Twain

Have you been to Burning Man before? For many people at Burning Man, the answer is NO.

Last year we presented analysis of the Burner breakdown from the Census: 60% Veterans. In retrospect, the title is a little confusing. You see, according to the OFFICIAL presentation of numbers, it was 40% Virgins, meaning that everyone else had been to Burning Man at least once before. But looking at the number in a different light – defining “Veteran” as you’ve been to Burning Man twice, not once – gave us the surprising result that only 29% of people at Burning Man were Veterans.

Well, guess what? 2014’s numbers are out, attached to the now heavily redacted Afterburn Report. I must praise the BRC Census team for producing the most comprehensive and useful interpretation of Burner data since statistics collection began in 2001. There are some interesting nuggets within the 45-page document.

The most interesting is the % of Veterans. Has it improved on 29%?

Nope. It’s almost exactly the same. At least, it was…until the Statistics were “adjusted”.

I am not an expert in Statistics, but I did study it in my first year at college, so I have more than just a passing knowledge of the field. The main thing I know is that modern statistics have been designed to be easy to fudge. That’s why Obama can claim “unemployment at 6%”, when the real unemployment rate is over 12%. The statistics can be manipulated to come to whatever conclusion is most politically expedient.

In the case of Burning Man 2014, Burners filled in the Census results after the event at Burning Man’s web site. They received 11,909 responses, 1 in every 5.5 Burners. This puts the sample size at almost 20% , which is definitely large enough to be useful.

The Census takers then “corrected for bias”. This is a process in which statistics turns from a science into an art, and the number wizards can work their magic. Always justified in the name of “making the numbers more accurate”, a whole bunch of mathematics and other variables can be brought in, to shift the results in whatever direction is desired.

In the case of Burning Man, a random sampling from the gate was mixed with every person on Burner Express. They used 8 different variables for the data reconstruction bias adjustment:

Day of arrival versus number of participants arriving – Gender – Age – Virgin Burner or not – Foreigner or not – English Speaker as a first language or not – US Party Affiliation (if eligible to vote in the US) – Voting Behavior

The theory is that Burners who answer the survey, may not be representative of all Burners; whereas Burners on Burner Express are. We could debate that all day long, at least the natural and adjusted results are shown for us to compare.

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According to the pollsters, the adjustment had a major effect on the % Virgins number: “Improvements in Weighting Procedure Impacted this Measure Significantly, Virgins -6% From Preliminary Results”.

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Unadjusted: 28.1% Veterans, 71.9% newbies, 37% Virgins

Adjusted: 37.8% Veterans, 62.2% newbies,  35.1% Virgins

That is quite a swing – nearly 10% in the participation of Veterans. The results came in from 11,707 Burners – the most who had ever participated in the Census. The numbers were pretty much just the same as last year – just like Burners.Me has been saying. And then, a whole bunch of “adjustment for bias” is applied to the numbers, and all of a sudden, the results are completely different!

Not only that, there is a large discrepancy between the unadjusted number, and the 2014 “preliminary” number that was announced in September last year:

Screenshot 2015-04-05 12.34.32

This post reflects information collected from 1,367 entering participants randomly sampled at Gate Road from Friday pre-event through Wednesday mid-burn and 1,239 riders of BxB entering from Reno and San Francisco from Saturday, pre-event through Wednesday.

So if the preliminary results were MORE Virgins, how can it be that the adjusted results are LESS Virgins? In the past, members of the Black Rock City Census team have commented here on our stories, so I invite them to #pleaseexplain.

Whether it’s 35% Virgins, 37% Virgins, or 41% Virgins, doesn’t change my general point: every year, magically, mysteriously, it’s around 40% Virgins. And only 29% Veterans.

Some have accused me of being a “conspiracy theorist” for thinking that this massive correlation in supposedly random numbers suggests something is going on to ensure that the distribution is not entirely random. The system of Burner profiles was only introduced in the last few years. It makes you state how many times you have been to Burning Man, before you get through the definitely not First-In First-Out queue to get tickets. If you fail, you then take a place in the STEP queue – which we are led to believe is First-In, First-Out, but have absolutely zero information or evidence about. All we can go on is past behavior: if they have lied in the past, why should we assume they are telling the truth now?

I liken it to playing Roulette, and betting on Red vs Black. In theory, if you had 50 blacks in a row, it’s the same as if there was just 1: there’s still a 50/50 chance of it being Red or Black. At what point do you say “this machine looks like it’s broken, it lands on black every time, it can’t be just random”? After a million blacks in a row, do you still assume the machine is fine and it’s all just random chance? At some point it either shifts from “accident” to “miracle”, or from “accident” to “planned”. We now have 3 years in a row of 40% Virgins.

Whether you look at the biased or unbiased numbers, the fact remains: it is much harder for Veterans to go to Burning Man than Virgins. And every year, the population of Veterans increases. Presumably most Veterans want to go back. So over time, it should be the other way around: it should be getting harder and harder for Virgins to get tickets. Instead the influx of Virgins seems to be fixed, and not influenced by the massive growth in the Veteran population over the last few years. It is not easy for Veterans to go, yet it still seems very easy for newbies to get there.

In 2014, 3 out of 4 Burners in Black Rock City had not been there more than twice before.


The rest of the statistics show what most Burners already knew: Burning Man is a white, educated, affluent, liberal, gay, Californian event.

15% of Burners were from outside the US, 4.4% from Canada. French, Spanish, and Russian (in that order) were the most common first languages spoken, other than English.

44% of Burners were from California, 5% from Nevada.

Screenshot 2015-04-05 11.04.06


The income of Burners has been increasing. 2.7% earn more than $300,000 a year – that’s 1800 people, supporting my previous assertion that there are thousands of millionaires at Burning Man. Nearly a quarter of Burners earn six figure incomes.

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The average Burner spent $639 in Nevada. A staggering 40% managed to attend Burning Man without spending more than $1000.

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STEP came through for almost 4% of Burners: 2573 tickets.

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This seems to add up with BMOrg’s claims, which suggests the unadjusted statistics are pretty accurate.

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So 73 STEP tickets came from Burners selling back to the queue, and the rest came from the “surprise” find of tickets that BMOrg released once their VIP Donation promotion was over. Unless BMOrg add another 2,500 tickets to STEP again this year, I think it’s safe to say Burners in the STEP queue this year are unlikely to get tickets.

Nearly 60% of Burners were in camps of 20 people or more.

Screenshot 2015-04-05 11.43.28

Only 5% of Burners didn’t have access to a bike. A third had some sort of solar, 44% had access to a camp generator and 19% to a vehicle generator. A full 6% of Burners were plugged into the BRC grid – nice action if you can get it.

42.1% of Burners report being worried about judgment or unfair treatment based on their participation in Burning Man.

Three quarters of Burners have college degrees, with a full quarter having a graduate degree. It also looks like a good place to get spa treatments…

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According to their “weighted” statistics, it’s a sausage-fest – 60% male, only 40% female. More than 1% identify their gender as “fluid”, which must help with those portapotty lines. 69% are heterosexual, and 72% have no religion.

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If Burning Man was a State, its 1.3% black population would rank it at #42 for racial integration. It would make #11 on the white population list, just beating Kentucky.

So much for Grover Norquist’s Dream Team and the Mainstream Republican Values of Burning Man. Black Rock City is full of left wing liberals, and skews heavily towards the democrats.

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18% of Burners came in RVs. That is 12,000 people. 0.9% flew into Black Rock City airport, 593 people.

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In 2007, the theme was The Green Man. As part of the celebrations, The Cooling Man did an analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from Burning Man. Their calculations went quite deep, estimating international and domestic air miles as well as use of generators on site. They estimated the average road miles per Burner as 654, which led to 16,500 tons of CO2 emissions based on a population of 40,000.

Cooling Man’s assumption was 0.0128 tons CO2e per gallon. Using BRC Census’s 320,000 gallons, that is 4,096 tons – so despite the population growth, Burning Man is getting greener.

Most Burners are Millenials – about 50% are in the age bracket 20-35.

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According to the unweighted numbers, 0.5% of Burners were 19 or younger. Applying the bias adjustment nearly tripled this, to 1.4%. It is still an incredibly small number, given how much Burners have to sacrifice for kids to be there. Almost half of Burners are completely opposed to kids being at the party, nearly 60% when it comes to kids under the age of 5. A whopping 15% of Burners do not think that the Playa is a safe place for children, and only 20% think that it is.

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Finally, it looks like more than 80% of Burners are using social media to get their Burning Man information.

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They might as well give up on ePlaya, most Burners have never even looked at it. And if they did, they probably never went back. Burning Man Facebook pages and blogs are being visited by Burners more often than Burning Man’s own site.

There is more interesting information in the full 2014 Black Rock City Census Report.


[Update 4/8/15 1:24pm]

The Black Rock City Census site originally published these preliminary findings for 2014:

A vast majority (2/3) purchased their ticket this year from the Burning Man organization either directly or through the STEP program. Nearly 25% purchased their ticket from someone known to them. The growth of STEP coincides with a 50% drop in purchases from Strangers (potential scalpers) when compared with data from 2012. Additionally, 92% obtained their ticket for face value or less. Though the remainder who weren’t lucky enough to receive their ticket this way may feel frustrated, the data indicates that the issue of scalping has been mitigated significantly.

Where did you buy?

BM 60.57%
STEP 6.37%
Someone_known 24.56%
Stranger 3.26%
Reseller 1.46%
IDK 0.56%
No_ticket 0.68%
Other 2.55%

This would put the number of STEP tickets at 4200, meaning 2500 from BMOrg and 1700 from Burners. This seems a more probable number to me. So why the big swing – 6.4% from initial data, to 3.9% in the adjusted data? In a similar fashion, “Third Party reseller” went from 1.46% (963 tickets) to 0.7% (461 tickets).


And The Most Popular Camp Is…

Burnerlove is a site linked to Burner Map, which lets your Facebook friends see where you are camped.

The folks who brought you BurnerMap love Burners and Burning Man so much we just had to do more!

Please welcome BurnerLove!

‘BurnerLove’ aims to help Burners find out more about other Burners, cool projects, insider news and gossip as well as exploring and cultivating the Burner spirit that makes Burning Man so goddamn fucking awesome I giggle like a teenage girl just thinking about it.

BurnerLove aims to be the TigerBeat of Burning Man.  With your help and advertising support from Sony Records and L’Oreal Cosmetics we’ll be launching a Burner-based Boy Band into the charts and giving a little pat on the back to your eating disorder and negative body image…BurnerLove – Fuck Yeah!

They have done some big data analysis on the information provided to Burner Map for 2013, plotting the connections between camps. Heart Tribe narrowly edges out IDEATE as most connected camp on social media, making it the place to be for Burning Man networkers.

The data map is not related to the actual camp layout. The big red dots are the most connected camps.


Re-blogged from Burnerlove.com:

So we geeked out a bit to visualize the camp data from Burner Map 2013 with the help of our good friend Matatertots. By measuring the number of friendship linkages between each of the camps on our crowd-sourced list (eg. 2014), we processed some aggregate data on the social webs connecting camps which used the app that year.


This plot is of only the most-connected 100 Burner Map camps (of 2,600) due to processing capacity. Sized by degree centrality, which is the volume of links the camps has. Colored by eigenvector centrality, which is similar to degree centrality but takes into account the centrality of the camps a given camp is connected to.

Top 25 camps according to three standard centrality measures:

Eigenvector Centrality Degree Centrality Betweenness Centrality
1 Heart tribe IDEATE Fractal Planet
2 Fractal Planet Heart tribe Heart Tribe
IDEATE Fractal Planet White Ocean
4 Sacred Spaces Village Disorient Sacred Spaces Village
5 Disorient Sacred Spaces Village Disorient
6 camp mystic Chakralicious Nexus
7 Chakralicious Black Hole Camp Contact
8 UFOm Abraxas Pod camp mystic illumination Village
9 Psyclone Kostume Kult camp mystic
10 Kostume Kult The Phage IDEATE
11 Camp Contact Psyclone Chakralicious
12 Bumblepuss Bumblepuss BMIR-FM, Burning Man Information Radio 94.5
13 The Phage Dustfish The Phage
14 Dustfish UFOm Abraxas Pod Camp DDI
15 Playaskool Camp Contact Trifucta
16 Black Hole Black Rock Cantina Shadyvil
17 Shift Trifucta UFOm Abraxas Pod
18 Trifucta Team Shenanimuffins @ The Sunset Trip Tasty Heart Deco
19 illumination Village Shadyvil Ego Ergo Frum
20 Nexus White Ocean Red Lightning
21 Team Shenanimuffins @ The Sunset Trip illumination Village Kostume Kult
22 Uhuru Playaskool Bumblepuss
23 Shadyvil Nexus DISTRIKT
24 Play)A(Skool Camp DDI Love Potion Camp
25 White Ocean Shift Pink Heart

Matatertots plotted in degree centrality vs. eigenvector centrality.  Points lying above the line are camps that are more connected to influential camps than their own level of connectivity would, on average, predict.  Similarly, those lying below the line are camps that tend to be connected less to influential camps than their level of overall connectivity suggests.

  • Above Line: HeartTribe, Camp Mystic, UFOm Abraxis Pod, Fractal Planet, Sacred Spaces, Chakralicious, Camp Contact
  • Below line: IDEATE, Disorient, Black Hole, The Phage, Bumblepuss, Dustfish, Black Rock Cantina


Degree centrality: The sum of all links between the focal camp (the one for which you are calculating the centrality) and other camps. So if I was the only one in Camp Dark Sparkle (CDS) on Burnermap and I was only friends with the four of you guys, CDS would have a degree centrality of 4.

Eigenvector centrality: An eigenvector centrality is like a “spread out” degree centrality, where a focal camp’s eigenvector centrality is higher if the camps it is connected to have high degree centrality.  Having a lot of ties to, say, Fractal Planet would give your camp a higher eigenvector centrality than camps with a similar number of connections to more average-sized camps.

Betweenness centrality: This one is related to information flow through the network.  You can find the shortest path through the network between any two camps.  Betweenness centrality is equal to the proportion of all of these shortest paths that pass through the focal camp.

Eigenvector Centrality – This was the name of an important but obscure sub clause in the Cold War era Warsaw Pact.  Frederick Eigenvector was a minor Slovakian General during the Soviet era known for his love of combining statistics, military strategy and meetings.  At an early meeting of Warsaw Pact representatives in Bratislava in 1958 Eigenvector convinced the other delegates of having all future meetings of the Warsaw Pact in the most central part of any city they agreed to meet in as a defense against a pre-emptive strikes from the West because Nato would want to minimize civilian casualties.  Attendees agreed and inserted it into the Warsaw Pact Framework where it was named ‘Eigenvector Centrality’.  Frederick Eigenvector was assassinated by a Nato Fields Medal winner on the outskirts of Ljubljana in 1962.

Source: Burnerlove.com

More Math(s)

Our post 60% Veterans has generated some further discussion and analysis.

Hunter from the Official BRC Census (2012 variant) came to comment:

Hi there, here’s Hunter from the Census Lab. I’m one of the research collaborator and I’ve been in charge of the Census databases since 2012 (i.e., when we started correcting the Census for sampling biases by doing a random sampling of burners at the gate during ingress). I won’t comment in details, but here’s a brief summary of my point of view on the subject.
The question is quite interesting (is there a bias towards virgins?), but, as mentioned above, the math/s are wrong. There is indeed a large proportion of newbies at BM (more or less between 30% and 40% every year, at least for the recent years) and I was surprised to see that at the beginning.
However, it is totally impossible to estimate the probability of getting a ticket without knowing how many veterans vs newbies tried to get a ticket. Also, you seem to believe that veterans (3+y) try to go every year if they can, but this is not what we see in the Census. Even if we take into account only the years before tickets went sold out, the Census data suggest that most veterans skipped one or more years. It might not be the case for highly involved veterans like you or those around you, though.
Also, we have to take into account the fact that the publicity that BM got in the recent years due to some viral videos, documentaries and media coverage probably increased extremely the number of non-burners who would like to go to BM “at least once”.
If we had access to the burner profile database (and no, I don’t have that kind of access), it might be possible to estimate the probability of getting a ticket as a fonction of number of playa years, but I don’t see how it could be done from the Census data.
All in all, I’m not convinced by the data that the probability of getting a ticket if one wants a ticket is higher for newbies than it is for veterans, especially if we take into account a few elements such as:
– the growing number of interested non-burners
– the continuously increasing population in BRC
– the fact that veterans rarely come every year (especially “older” vets)
Also, IF the probabilities are skewed as you suggests, the Org is not necessary the culprit. Lets just remember that a very strong tradition in the BM culture is ticket gifting. Thus, veterans will often provide a ticket to a virgin friend to let them experience the event. Such a tradition definitely skews probability in favor of virgins by providing some of them with an easy access to a ticket, or at least a second chance to get one.

Finally, I’ll add a simple correction to your text. Your argument about BIG data suggests that the info collected via the Census, the burner profile and other Org-related projects end up in a big database in which everything can be analyzed and cross-referenced, but it’s hardly the case, at least for the Census. I’m not part of the Org, so I cannot tell what they do with the burner profile info. However, the Census data are kept separate from any other database and no email is in the database. The Census Lab provides the Org with the Census results, but the Census databases are under the responsibility of the Census Lab to insure a strict confidentiality of the data and respondents.

So, thanks for the topic, it looks like it sparked an interesting discussion. I hope that these clarifications were useful. If anyone of you wants to continue the discussion on playa, you are welcome to drop by the Census Lab (10:00 and Inner circle) and ask for Hunter.

Now just because someone affiliated with BMOrg says “you’re wrong”, doesn’t mean we’re wrong, as readers of this blog should know by now. Since my response got quite long, I’m making a post out of it.

Thanks for coming here to comment Hunter. The whole Burner community benefits from public discourse like this! We presume that helping the community is the reason why this data is being provided by Burners, and collected by your group and BMOrg – and why your group volunteers your time for free to help Burners understand the implications.

You dismsissed our post by saying “the math is wrong”, without any further explanation. I’m going to point out how your reasoning is wrong.

1. The last 3 years of Virgin data are 47%, 37%, 40%. I’m using this to say “40% Virgins”. I am not making that prediction just from 2 years of your census data, I am also making it from my analysis that “the Census data shows something more is going on here than random chance”.

2. You are responsible for the last two data sets, which are both under the new ticketing system. If this year’s data set also shows 40% virgins, this will be more evidence of something going on. Coincidences can’t just keep happening again and again the same way, at some point you have to wonder “maybe the data is being skewed somehow and this is not just random chance”. Who is responsible for the overall collection and analysis of Burning Man data, then? Because, they’re sure collecting a truckload of it.

3. Could you provide more details of how you bias the sample? Could the sampling bias of the gate survey have an impact on the 40% virgins? How large was the sample size for 2012 and 2013? Here’s what we have:

There was an inherent self-selection bias in past surveys
• 2012 complemented census with a random sampling at the gate
• Random sample allowed them to weight the collected data
• Variables used to weight the 2012 Census:
– Gender
– Age
– Are you a Virgin?
– Foreign
– English Speaker
– US Party Affiliation

How was this done? What was the difference in numbers of the “Are you a Virgin” question between the gate census and the Center Camp census? What does US Party Affiliation have to do with Census results?

4. You state “it is totally impossible to estimate ticket probability without knowing number of newbies trying and number of veterans trying”. You also admit you have no access to the database information from the Burner Profiles. So, if profile data was being used – algorithmically or manually – to influence the number of Virgins at the party, how would you be in a position to know, any more than we are? Are you saying “it is totally impossible that Burners who answer NEVER in their profile have an increased chance of getting a ticket”? No, you’re not. You’re actually saying “assuming this is all random chance, we need these numbers to make our prediction more accurate”. My entire post is saying “I don’t think this is random chance”.

5. I agree that estimating an attrition rate for veterans should be applied. Another commenter Cupcake has suggested 20%, which I am happy to run with. Your comment that “the two years of data I’m looking at from gate surveys of the new ticketing system say veterans don’t want to go back”, is analysis based on flawed reasoning. It could very well show that either a) veterans don’t care about completing your survey so much, or b) the system is skewed to prevent veterans from getting tickets, so they never arrive. How else can you know what the intentions of the 659,000 veterans were towards getting tickets?

6. You then say that “even looking at the years before, veterans skip years” – this may be true for some Veterans, but the population of Veterans is always growing.

7. You take BMOrg’s line that YouTube videos and media coverage have led to exploding newbie demand. From the earliest survey data we have, 2001, media coverage was the biggest reason people heard about BM (after Word of Mouth and Other). Despite what BM says on the ticket terms and conditions “The organization does little to solicit attention from television or media companies…and does not seek to artificially grow the event itself by exposure through the mass media”…BMOrg employs multiple PR people specifically for this purpose. The exposure has included Malcolm in the Middle, South Park, the Daily Show, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, Town and Country and Vogue – all long before 2012. Mass media promotion seems to be a constant factor.

I note that when they first started this lottery thing, which was at the height of the YouTube and media blitz, the population of BRC actually dropped from the previous year – presumably because Veterans gave up when they couldn’t get tickets, and this had a ripple effect through the community. You’d think it would’ve continued to be a sold out event, if there was a massive population of Virgins wanting to go.

8. “The culture of gifting encourages people to give tickets to newbies”. I’ll concede that you could be right, but it’s hard to say how much of a factor this truly is. This is an area where it would be great to have the Burner Profile data. To me, it doesn’t sufficiently explain “a jump to 40% Virgins for the last 3 years in a row”. If anything, it would suggest that the Virgin percentage would have been much higher years ago, when the Veteran population was smaller (since you’re implying Veterans bring Virgins, and also Virgins bring Virgins).

9. You say that “data doesn’t end up in a big database”; at the same time you admit you don’t have access to BMOrg’s databases, and you don’t know what they do with the data once you provide it to them.

If less Veterans want to go because all BMOrg’s rules and procedures and new ticketing ideas have a negative effect on their motivation to return, this doesn’t change my point – the ticket sales are being manipulated to discourage Veterans and encourage Virgins. It would just be a different method, death by culture rather than death by algorithm.

bm shark jumpingWho is more motivated to create profiles and jump through all these hoops to get a ticket, Virgins, or Veterans? Maybe the veteran attrition rate is increasing, as “jumping the shark” becomes a catchphrase and publications like Salon and Vanity Fair proclaim “Burning Man is dead” – this makes Virgins want to go even more, and Veterans want to go even less. My personal view is that most people who make it out to Burning Man like it, and want to return. Hunter is right that maybe my bias is skewed by knowing a lot of Burners and writing a blog for Burners.

If there are always more Virgins who want to go than Veterans, then the ticket distribution will always be trending higher towards Virgins. Veterans is always growing, minus the attrition rate. This means that the number of Virgins who want to go each year has to be growing by more than the Veteran population, to keep the proportions the same. Virgins is growing, attribute that to media if you want, but surely there is a peak – not every person in the world wants to go to Burning Man. It seems like when they first started the lottery, more Veterans wanted to go than Virgins, and that is why the annual population shrank. In 2014, is Virgins who want to go, growing faster than Veterans who want to go? Will the growth rate of the former group slow down this year, because there wasn’t a Dr Seuss video?

One interpretation of the data could be “veterans are souring on the event, and their population is naturally declining, being replaced by Virgins”. However, I’m not making that interpretation. Mine is “Virgins are somehow deliberately being favored in the ticket allocation”. The most likely way I can see to influence that would be using the Burner profile information where you are specifically asked if you’re a Virgin, and if not to indicate all the years you attended.

We look forward to seeing the Census data from 2014.