Friday, August 23, 2013

Ham Nation - the next generation

Over the school summer holidays this year my son Toby (15) decided to get himself qualified and licensed as a "Basic" Canadian amateur radio operator.  Now, this wasn't 100% self-motivated... I'd been telling him that this would be a 'cool' thing to do for a while and suggested it as a good summer project.  I then applied a gentle pressure by enquiring after his progress on a daily basis.  Nevertheless, to his credit he kept up the work (focus and consistency being important to make real progress) and then passed his exam with flying colours - earning the 'honours' distinction of being able to operate on HF.

After his exam success, Toby's application for a Canadian call sign was processed in absolutely record time by Industry Canada (literally two days)!  That meant that he was licensed as VA7TOB in time for a week's family vacation - providing some opportunity for a bit of initial airtime on 2m as we took a couple of handheld radios with us.  Toby acquired a very inexpensive Beofung 2m/70cm handheld, which I'll probably blog about soon.

Having Toby get himself through the exam has caused me to think again about the evolving nature of the hobby - particularly in terms of its appeal to the younger demographic.  It's interesting talking with him to hear his attitudes to the advantages and interests that he associates with Amateur Radio, and also to hear what his friends have said in relation to his recent qualification and licensing.  In the rest of this blog I'll write a few thoughts about this.

I remember quite well the attraction that Amateur Radio held for me when I was in my sophomore year.  Away home home and living in student digs, one of other tenants in the house had recently obtained his 'Class B' UK license and had a nice little set up in his room - consisting of a Yaesu mobile rig, an AEA TNC and a mobile antenna.  He was into packet radio and demonstrated what it could do in terms of mail and bulletin board access.  All this was at a time before the internet and when accessing a bulletin board network meant paying quite large phone bills in the UK - being before any of the schemes that essentially make local or 'family and friends' numbers essentially free.

In a nutshell, what I saw was 'magic'.

Also, as a computer guy, the idea of large-area distributed radio networks was uber cool.  The fact that this cool technology and capability was essentially out of reach due to a license requirement just made it all the more compelling - I had to get licensed :-)

Actually, my first exposure to Amateur Radio was actually at a "Jamboree on the Air" (JOTA) as a cub scout.  This was an all-night affair, with a chance to chat with other cub scouts around the world.  I was very young so didn't take all of the details in at the time, but the idea of exchanging a few words with distant people 'of a similar feather' did have some appeal and again, the capability afforded by HF radio to do this was essentially unique

Winding the clock forward to today, we all have very high speed global communication devices in our pockets.  Of course, this access isn't 100% reliable even at the best of times, but it does represent the new norm.  The biggest upshot of this is that the 'magic' of cheap long distance communications has been removed for most people.  Had I been in my digs today I may very well not have developed an interest in radio enough to actually do anything about getting licensed.  These days, people use communications technology to develop and maintain wide social networks that are grown organically around their own interests (which do not have to have anything to do with the medium over which they are acquiring this capability).

Given these changes I think it is quite normal for us to see quite a change in the 'how' and 'why' of people entering the hobby.  The good news apparently is that new licenses are at an all time high in the US and the UK (I believe).  So, in these places as least the intake is strong and no doubt driven by changes in licensing to create a lower barrier to entry, improved outreach and in carefully modifying the 'marketing hooks' that make the hobby appealing to modern audiences - specifically young people.

Amateur Radio is fundamentally a technical hobby, so any appeal necessarily involves contact with some technical concepts.  However, while it's absolutely a necessity that the freedoms afforded to hams are pegged to sufficient knowledge of how radio works, it's probably increasingly true that radio design and implementation is less of a fundamental interest.  There are more 'derived' interests in the hobby than ever before.  The oldest of these is simply operating (rag chews, contesting, DX, etc.).  However, there are now so many other dimensions:
  • Digital modes and computing in general 
  • Low power modes
  • Emergency response/support
  • Antenna construction 
  • Support software 
  • Software Defined Radio
  • Satellites/ISS/Moonbounce
  • Social networks and socialised learning
  • Fox hunting
  • Remote control, telemetry (e.g. weather balloon launches), position reporting (e.g. APRS)
  • Activating landmarks, summits, islands etc.
It's almost certainly the case that newcomers to the hobby are going to get to hooked with one of these derived interests.  Therefore any outreach will need to place itself squarely in the way of people who might find these things interesting.

Another dynamic, I think, is that it is easier to get them while they're young (and specifically while they have imagination, ambition, energy and time).

Also, when we reach out we are competing, whether we like it or not, with many other messages and appeals.  There is much that is bright and shiny in the world and the production values used to appeal to people have skyrocketed.  

Finally, there's the issue of the 'cohort'.  People are drawn to something that they see other similar people getting into.  This applies in spades when it comes to young people, according to recent studies.

In my opinion, all this adds to the need for a fairly sophisticated outreach, with attractive displays showcasing the cool high-tech and varied elements of the hobby, coupled with activities that can be run with groups of people (who share the experience together and possibly get inspired together).

Not every ARC is going to have a lot of resources for the necessary outreach, but I think attendance at community events with both exhibit and activity materials is surely the way to go.  In the UK, almost every town and village has a summer fair - a great place to exhibit some cool displays showcasing elements of the hobby, to demonstrate operating and perhaps to run a few activities such as a fox hunt.

One very exciting initiative involving technology and young people is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation are doing with computing/software.  I think this is something that Amateur Radio can both attach itself to and also learn from.  While there is probably more awareness of computing than there is of radio amongst the general public, it has nevertheless become true that most people's exposure to computing is via appliances (game devices, phones) or common software (email, Facebook, the web).  As the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation surmised, much has been lost because young people no longer have access to a simple inexpensive computer that is designed as an experimenter's platform with lots of connectivity and interfacing to the 'real world'.  Having such a platform again, coupled with educational activities to showcase 'coolness' and help people begin to understand how they can build things that do something novel and exciting, is clearly having a very positive effect on getting young people to appreciate the 'payback' of investing a little time in learning how to leverage technology.  What seems to work very well are classes that get bright kids together, each with a Raspberry Pi, working on one or more projects with appropriate encouragement and guidance.  This creates both a great environment for personal learning, but also a group effect.  I remember this effect in the 80s when I was experimenting on my own 8-bit 'micro' and would share all kinds of learning and experiences with my friends who were doing similar things.

While most endeavours are social at some level, radio is social to an even greater extent.  Generally speaking if you are doing radio you are interacting with others.  This makes the cohort effect even more important.  It's alarming, that in my local ham community I see and aging male demographic.  Certainly, going along to my radio club makes me feel young :-)  We urgently need to appeal to groups of young people that strongly and permanently adopt some aspect of the hobby, from which point they can continue to deepen their knowledge.  Starting clubs in schools or colleges might be one idea.  Another thing that seems to be working in the US is engagement of young people in emergency response in their communities, which again probably starts in schools.

As a final thought, from my point of view Canada seems to have a bit of a problem and it is rapidly falling behind in appealing to the next generation of amateurs.  It's important we find out how to fix this before we loose too many of the elmers that will keep the deeper technical skills alive through teaching/coaching once the original sparks of interest are ignited.

The problem with arresting the sort of decline based on demographics is that it takes real effort to reach and acquire new blood.  Hopefully you can find new leaders in the any new intake, that will bootstrap sustainable outreach within their own peer group.  What's clear though is that in order to start, we have to stop being exclusively an "old engineers club" (almost exclusively guys over 40!) and invest in a programme of activities that will bring in the younger people.  Naturally, nothing gets done unless there are a few people with the both passion and time to run a programme however and the comfort levels of the currently available hams to do various kinds of outreach is a big factor.

In the UK they do seem to be finding new avenues to connect with people via 'marketing' and education, whereas in the US, there seems to be ever higher emphasis on the role of amateur radio in emergency response.   Perhaps the latter is an easier route for the current generation of hams to build outreach (and our club already has a strong relationship with the local Emergency Management Centre).   I get the sense that, so far, this approach has a stronger support from government and the national amateur radio club (e.g. the ARRL) in the US than in does in Canada - which probably says something about the lack of resources and significance of the Radio Amateurs of Canada.  Without umbrella coordination and funding to organise outreach programs effectively, every local club has to decide for itself what it can do - but outreach is probably not the highest priority at local club level in most cases.

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