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The making of Maker Faire

Shadowing the organizers of weekend's Maker Faire in Austin, Texas, is an illuminating experience.

AUSTIN, Texas--The most important thing right now is to make sure no one gets hit by flying watermelons.

Maker Faire show producer Louise Glasgow (left) talks intently with a crew member. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Under usual circumstances, this might be an odd concern. But I'm here in the Texas capital for Maker Faire, and the three organizers--Dale Dougherty, Louise Glasgow and Sherry Huss--just want to be sure that there are no safety issues with the fruit-launching trebuchet that has been set up on the west side of the event.

I've been riding around with Glasgow, Maker Faire's event producer, for a little while, hoping to see what she encounters in the course of the first day of the event, which took place Saturday and Sunday at the Travis County Fairgrounds.

After spending only a little time with her, one thing has already become clear: This woman is all about business.

It's not that she can't enjoy herself. Rather, it's that from the minute I hopped onto her golf cart, she has been a blur of motion, zipping from one place to the next, weaving in between attendees, talking on her radio, stopping to check in with crew members, and then repeating the whole process.

When I first got on, she is in the middle of trying to drum up participants for a parade of art bikes and other moving sculpture. Then, just like that, she has moved on to try to ensure the trebuchet isn't going to conflict in any way with the model rocketeers. Conflict, in this case, would be a Maker Faire version of Patriot missiles shooting down Scuds.

Maker Faire

This is the third Maker Faire, but only the first in Austin. So while Glasgow and her fellow lead organizers have institutional memory to work with, they're also new to this city and want to be sure they get it right.

After months of planning and days of setup, it's finally the moment of truth.

And it looks like it's all paying off. Glasgow seems quite pleased as she notes, perhaps to herself, perhaps to me, "It's like a constant flow (of attendees) coming in now, which is nice."

By now, we've been joined by Huss, Maker Faire's director, and we're continuing the mad pace around the fairgrounds. You'd be tempted to think that Glasgow's just patrolling randomly, but it actually seems very much like she's a woman with a definite plan.

Maker Faire organizers (from left) Dale Dougherty, Sherry Huss and Glasgow discuss safety measures involved in a trebuchet that launches melons hundreds of feet. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

As we approach a fence separating the fairgrounds from the parking lot, we encounter Dougherty, the editor and publisher of Make magazine and the co-organizer of this 48-hour celebration of do-it-yourself culture, hacking, carnival silliness, fire art and so much more.

Every other time I've run across Dougherty during the time I've been here--I came two days early to Maker Faire Austin to play the role of "embedded reporter"--he's been in a largely jovial mood. Now he's agitated, complaining that the two parking lot attendants on the other side of the fence are not adequately directing attendees to the entry gates.

Glasgow assures him she'll take care of it, and she, Huss and I head in that direction to solve the problem.

We approach the two attendants, who apparently don't speak English, and Glasgow proceeds to engage in a half-English, half-pantomime attempt at conveying the proper instructions. They nod their assent and we drive off. Whether they actually understood was not entirely clear to me.

All summer, Glasgow has been visiting Austin, checking out other events at the fairgrounds and visiting other venues around town in a bid to understand what works and what doesn't in this entertainment-crazy town.

She and Huss have also been working hard to build relationships with the vendors for the event, as well as with institutions and communities in town to help drum up interest for the Maker Faire and ensure they don't breach important protocols.

Rich Bailey, chief of staff for the mayor of Austin (center), offers a mayoral proclamation declaring Maker Faire weekend in the city. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"I look at it like I'm setting up 20 rows of dominos, then making sure" they fall the right way, Glasgow says. "If something goes off track, we know what track it's going to fall into."

Among the organizations that the two have reached out to are South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits music festival, the Burning Flipside regional Burning Man event, the Austin Children's Museum, the local video game development community, the University of Texas radio station--all in the hopes that each group could build bridges to the overall Austin community.

By now, we've found our way to the head of the parade route, and we've stopped momentarily to watch.

Just when it seems that Glasgow has forgotten her frenetic countenance, she spots a normal car parked up ahead along the parade route and suddenly we're off to intercept it.

We actually move so quickly that as we hit a bump. Huff's radio falls off the cart. No matter, Glasgow approaches the poorly located car, has a quick conversation with its driver and then grabs a nearby crew member to deal with the situation.

For the most part, Maker Faire is made up of exhibitors who come to demonstrate their mad science or show off their wares or educate the public. But the event is also "anchored" by some major groups hired by the Maker Faire. In Austin, that included two previous Maker Faire anchors--Cyclecide, a carnival bicycle rodeo, and the Life Size Mousetrap, a version of the kid's game on human growth hormone--and now a third group, the self-described freak show 999 Eyes.

Glasgow talks to a driver about moving her car out of the way of an approaching parade. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

And as we drive in between 999 Eyes and the Mousetrap, Glasgow hits the golf cart's brakes as the sheriff, or at least a deputy, walks up. They begin talking. Though I can't hear very much of what they're saying, I can tell it's largely friendly.

"I could tell from the first time I met you," Glasgow says to the officer, "that I wanted you on my team."

Further, she adds, he should make sure to mark his calendar for Maker Faire Austin 2008, next October.

That's the first I've heard specific mention of there being another Maker Faire here next year.

But it's not hard to see why. By the end of Sunday, Huss tells me that she estimates total attendance for the weekend in the low-20,000s, which is almost exactly on par with the first Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif. That venue, in its second go-round this May, hit 40,000-plus. So things look good for Austin.

I ask about the 2008 event, and Huss says that it had already pretty much been assumed that there would be a second Maker Faire here, and that, in fact, you pretty much have to go into putting something like this on with the understanding that it's a multiple-year project.

One measure of success for Maker Faire Austin was its ability to create a good relationship with law enforcement. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

For the most part, Huss and Glasgow seem very happy. There are at least a few things they'd like to see be different.

From Huss' perspective, the most important might be getting more sponsorships from local major corporations. That's particularly so, she said, because Maker Faire is not a profitable venture, even in California. She said the Bay Area events just about broke even, and that Austin is not assured of even that. So, clearly more money would be good.

Another thing she'd like to see is a "food makers" section in which the so-called Makers could sell their food. That's because, currently, Maker Faire can only sell food made by approved vendors.

"Our audience doesn't want corn dogs," Huss says.

To be fair, there are other choices, like fajitas, but her point is well taken. If people were able to make and sell whatever they wanted--within reason, of course--there could be a much more interesting selection.

Finally, we pull up in front of the main Maker Faire building, where Harrod Blank, the spiritual leader of the art car movement, has gathered several examples of the genre, including one that was donated in perfect, normal shape, and which is being actively permanently decorated by participants. By now, it looks amazing, and shows a lot of promise to get even better.

As Huss and Glasgow get into a friendly conversation with Blank, I decide that this is where I'll get off.

As I walk away, I'm reminded of something Glasgow said to me during the ride.

Talking about the infrastructure of the event and her experience putting it all together for what is now the third, mostly successful, time.

"It's like building a house," Glasgow said. "There's certain things that won't go up without a foundation."