Where Are the Hams? Right About Here…

Since about 1983, I’ve been involved in computer mapping of data in one way or another. It’s called GIS (Geographic Information Systems) officially. But two things made it popular to the masses.

One was when President Clinton turned off the intentional error insertion on the government GPS satellites. This made the inexpensive Walmart-style personal GPS devices, such as the monochrome Magellan that I had during the 1990s, about as accurate as double-differential commercial GPS devices made by Trimble. Fishermen loved it! Put a waypoint on that favorite honey-hole in the lake and away we go … only to come back to the same spot next time!

Another was Google. When they published Google Maps and made even crude (and often wrong) directions available to the masses, what professionals called GIS was way cool. Now that’s worth paying taxes for! OK. I won’t push this point that far but you get my drift.

As a college professor, I’ve spent over 30 years doing, researching, and teaching GIS and spatial statistics. Spatial statistics are what I call putting numbers back on maps and using statistical tools to help make sense of the patterns viewed in a particular map display. Show a map to 12 people and watch as at least 13 different interpretations arise from the group! (No kidding. I’ve done this.) Along with Dr. Jeremy Porter (CUNY-Brooklyn & Columbia Univ.), I edit a scientific journal and a book series published by Springer Media on these topics (see spatialdemography.org).

The reality is that many maps are based upon the publicly-funded TIGER (Topically Integrated, Geographically Encoded Reference) files, available through the U.S. Bureau of the Census, but often enhanced by additional information. Such as the USPS mail carrier route data or aerial photography from the USDA for crop assessment. But the average member of the public doesn’t know that or, perhaps, even care. They just want convenient, accurate maps!

Amateur radio uses maps. Perhaps most frequently in APRS where amateurs are «tracked» as a point over a basemap. These maps have been UGLY (eh, I mean crude…) from the beginning but more recent software has improved or even used Google Maps as a base. Others have used the crowd-sourced OpenStreetMap (OSM) maps which, by design, are open-sourced and free to use. Google is a business and in business to make money using the «fremium» model where there are some «light» services available free to organize a market for the regular and paid-for services.

But where are licensed hams? Where are the clubs they create and maintain? I’ve pushed the ARRL when I was a volunteer Assistant Director for the Delta Division to make better use of GIS in managing their programs and offering new ones. Never got on the agenda! Not Invented Here? Perhaps…

As a project that I’ve undertaken on my own, with some assistance from fellow ham Joe Speroni AH0A on providing me with vintage slices of the FCC ULS database on licensed hams each January, my concern has been one of a social demographer who is also a licensed amateur radio operator. We need to geocode (that is, locate in latitude-longitude terms) ALL of the licenses in the U.S. and the location of clubs plus harness the regions that the League uses in its organizational chart: Divisions and Sections. Plus, if we do this over time, using the FCC’s way of tracking an individual (the FRN or FCC Registration Number), link those individuals annually, then construct a record-linked data structure over a couple of decades, then we can at least see some cool things that the League does not now know… no matter what their Marketing Director says at hamfests (When I approached ARRL Marketing Manager Bob Inderbitzen, NQ1R about this at a hamfest, he waved me off, stating «Oh we have statisticians and we know all that.»). Hmm, where have I heard that line before in my 40 years of dealing with federal, state and local government on their service delivery?

My first step in this project is now available, at least temporarily, on my Resources page. Using the community (free) version of MangoMaps, and the January 2013 data slice of licensed U.S. amateur radio licensees, I’ve geocoded them using the SmartyStreets™ geocoding service. (Thanks for the free support, SmartyStreets!). After requesting all of the ARRL affiliated clubs in the U.S. from Harold Kramer, COO for the League, I geocoded their mailing address. Now both suffer from the POB problem. But I was surprised at how small the actual percentage of both hams and club addresses actually use a «point zipcode» of a POB! Thus, while not fully accurate, these data are certainly accurate enough to give us a glimpse of where hams are and where are area clubs (or not). I’ve used different colors to symbolize the various license classes and a blue star to represent clubs. The ARRL Divisions are shown in green line boundaries.

I’ll update the data to the January 2016 FCC ULS records in the next few months as well as construct a polygon file of ARRL Sections (most, but not all, are state boundaries). My research project is to construct a record-linked database from the January 2000 slice to current year with each record geocoded to a latitude-longitude point. Putting these points in counties, metropolitan areas, or «out in the county» areas will tell us a great deal about the local context that hams of different classes reside in. Moreover, seeing how their movement shifts over this multiple decade period will be informative too. Given that there is a far, far smaller number of League members (Kramer says 151,900 domestic members out of the 700,000 plus with over 10,000 international members. I’m a member of the RSGB, for instance, so there are reciprocal terms in the League’s numbers, too.) So Mr. Inderbitzen’s cavalier dismissal of these inquiries really doesn’t hold water since so many license holders are not ARRL members.

OK, I’ll quit fighting City Hall! But my point is hopefully made. Take a look at this preliminary map. Find your self in the maze of points! How far away is the nearest ARRL-affiliated club? Is there a «club desert» where you live? Perhaps it’s time to start one!

Updated: November 2, 2015 — 3:16 pm
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