Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Dreaded Independent ARRL Field Day 2020 Analysis Article

We all knew that the ARRL Field Day was going to be different in 2020, so in early June I decided to gather 10 years of public data from the ARRL about past Field Days and build one mega database to compare annual results. 

The end product of that first analysis can be found in the "ARRL Field Day: Independent Data Analysis" article I authored six months ago.

With December under way, the latest issue of QST has been released with the full results of this great event meant to showcase amateur radio at its best. 

The ARRL has even been kind enough to provide a free PDF version of the article for those that do not have the member only magazine or access to the very limited outlets where you can find a print copy such as Ham Radio Outlet and other select specialty retailers who are trying to figure out ways to do business no thanks to COVID-19.

2020 ARRL Field Day Facts and Fallacies

It is really tough for the ARRL to compile the scoring for Field Day on a normal year, but this year was much tougher given rule changes that allowed participants to remain at home but still support a club by sharing logs and attribute them to a club entity.

Based on the official ARRL QST article and the official data found on the ARRL website CSV repository, there are some things that do not add up 100%. I am not sure why this is, but the overall numbers are not "that far" different, so I guess they are still ok to use. 

What am I talking about you ask? Here are some random spot checks comparing the article data to the website data for a few ARRL sections:

Overall, the ARRL QST article tallied up an impressive 10,213 entries for 2020, but the data only shows 9,601 entries. 

Even if subtracting the 58 DX entities which are not represented in the website date very well, the difference is still over 1,000 off and I would like to know why that is, especially when some of the data does line up from both sources.

Taking another spot check comparing counts by class summary, the ARRL QST article says there were 517 "A" class participants in 2020, but the data adds up to only 481, which is 7% less. Looking at the rare "F" class, 84 are claimed by the article but only 78 are found in the data which is a little more than 7% difference.  This makes me really concerned even if thinking about margins for error. The data should line up!

Transmitters & Classes!!

Diving even deeper, the QST article claims that 12,297 transmitters across 60 categories were used in the 2020 Field Day, but the data found on the website is 10,977.  

You would think that transmitters and classes would always match up for a 1:1 SWR, but many field day participants, especially at the club level, know this might vary over the contest duration on how many stations they have on the air which makes the ARRL's job in keeping things straight really tough.  

I think this is ok to have this slight mismatch though, since we all know a 1:1.89 SWR is ok, if we tried add some ham radio humor here, but still, we need to to depend on the ARRL for accuracy when guiding our hobby forward. As we learned this year, every point/vote counts!

This being said, lets compare the 10 years of average top 5 classes against just the 2020 data, but only using the website data because, that just seems a bit more accurate than the article that seems to use some sort of imaginary math.

Please do not worry, this story is going to get way more positive, so please stay with me here.  

The exciting thing is that almost 60% of participating transmitters were those playing "ham radio" from home as single operator home based stations (1D) being cautious due to COVID, where 16% over the last 10 years were those more rare operators. 

Home stations, but operating on emergency power (1E) increased 8% on average compared to past years, so this tells us that some people made an attempt to at least try to operate in the true spirits of Field Day while they were confined at the home QTH in 2020. 

Interestingly, the fragmentation of so many different operating classes in years past shrunk from 45% to 12% which shows that COVID-19 really impacted the ways that even portable, temporary operators approached Field Day 2020 which was too bad, as there were many open green spaces to still attempt to play amateur radio this past June away from home and still be safe from COVID.

The most popular club run double transmitter 2A stations over the past 10 years shrank from 13% to under 2% in 2020 and this is not surprising given health concerns.

If anyone would like to help me analyze the master database that I have created to see how many of those 2% were part of that averaged 13% of years past, they may need some special award for treating Field Day the same as any other year, while still likely being very COVID compliant.

Participation & Contacts

Its time to reach for the sky pilgrim, as John Wayne might have said when it comes to participation this year for Field Day. 

This gets confusing because tabulated web data shows a super steep drop off in the total number of participants from an average of 36,800 over the past 10 years to only 17,777 in 2020. 

Some people might say that the death of ham radio is finally here, but I disagree after looking at the total number of contacts made.

Now, how can so many contacts be made with so much fewer participants you ask? 

Easy, people had more time from home to operate and play radio rather then get stuck spending hours putting up antennae, running feed lines, avoiding mosquitos, having intellectual discussions while waiting for time at a club radio or being distracted by meal times and countless other "what happens at field day, stays at field day" sort of moments.

Most people who operate field day at the club level probably know that some participants like to operate while others do the physical labor.  This drop off could have been worse and it was not.

Normal levels of participation should bounce back next year, I hope and I suspect a huge increase.

Mr. Mic says: Amateur radio is finally here?

Could someone like Jason AF7JP from Ham Radio 2.0 been ahead of the curve just like HVDN and other forward minded people and organizations in the hobby today? Yes, they were! Digital was coming in every form possible and the entire hobby needed to get ready for it!

Dissecting the total contacts in 2020 into voice, digital data and Morse code, it looks like the complexities of more people doing digital during field day has finally come thanks to COVID.

Personally, as part of the 6A Overlook Mountain Amateur Radio Club (OMARC) team in 2020, we ran a really safe COVID compliant outdoor operation this year at Ferncliff Forest in Rhinebeck NY.  

Everyone noticed that voice contacts were pretty much the same as years past and we suspected that field day overall was disappointing for many people across the land.

In past years, certain OMARC club members operated digital modes which gave the clubs valuable points thanks to portable go kits, but they decided to stay home this year and we missed those QSO's and friendly faces a lot.  The logs do not even show them participating in field day this year which is too bad, especially when it came to digital contacts.

OMARC still had a pretty good score considering and we generally thank Joe N2LL for this since he is a pure CW operator. Since we put extra special attention into his favorite 80m vertical antenna this year, he made more personal contacts than the year prior to help close the digital gap for the club.

Where OMARC totally missed out was no digital station for the duration of the event, but everyone who worked the overnight and early morning shifts knew that all the activity was on non-voice modes after scanning the bands and hoping to avoid duplicate voice contacts.

Across the country, it seems the data backs up our experience that digital is here to stay and is coming into its own against CW even, which as a 200 year old technology is still used to make contacts.

Could voice QSO's be a thing of the past?  Are we losing some social aspects in the hobby?  Not likely, but it does seem the magic of rubbing two wires together or bashing bits and bytes together will help maintain the legacy and future of amateur radio for years to come.

2020: Field Day lessons learned

It is encouraging to see such growth in digital modes during field day, that it is in every club's best interests to focus some time on building out a dedicated digital station to not miss out on points in the 2021 version of field day. 

Many people say that Field Day is not a contest and I agree with that, but if we are going to think of this event for a reason to create emergency communications capabilities, digital needs to be front and center for anyone looking to participate in field day.

Hudson Valley Perspective

HVDN is based in the beautiful Hudson Valley section of New York and we need to now shift from the national picture to that of our local region, known as ENY.

Our ARRL section is actually one of the few in the United States to keep up mostly with national trends and actually come close to showing growth, where other parts of the country are stagnating against the national averages.

For ENY to continue showing this strong leadership, we need to encourage more of our communities to get active in other "non-contest" aspects of  amateur radio such as Summits On The Air (SOTA), Parks On The Air (SOTA) and even Islands On The Air (IOTA). 

These sort of converged activities will not only help future participation and modernization in Field Day, but also help those who only get outside once a year for Field Day to try some other ways of operating.

Comparing ENY to the less than the 2 hour away Long Island section know as NLI, which also has roughly four times the population and number of amateurs, the contact trends are not as active as the neighbors to the north. Considering that so many fewer ham's live in ENY compared to NLI, this is pretty interesting!

Even when looking at the entire FCC Call Letter Section Two which covers New York and New Jersey,  the Hudson Valley seems to be the place to be when it comes to amateur radio if we use Field Day as a small example.

I hope you can come for a visit either for Field Day, upcoming Fox Hunt adventures or even to explore our many, many SOTA, POTA and possibly IOTA destinations plus Winter Field Day operations which OMARC also seems to have taken a lead on here in the Hudson Valley.

So how can I get this database you have?

To gain access to the tool used to visualize the charts used in this article, we are currently offering this as one of the HVDN member benefits, so if you would like a copy, please consider becoming a supporting member for $12 USD even if you do not live in the Hudson Valley.

The database will let you:

  • Track per callsign, all ARRL Field Day activity from 2010 to present
  • Look at voice versus non-voice contact comparisons
  • Explore participants, transmitters, power sources and station types
  • Learn about how to use pivot tables for a practical application in amateur radio
  • Understand more about data analytics and science
  • Attend related presentations via Zoom about data analytics and amateur radio
The older and slightly less refined 2010 to 2019 version is available via an Easter egg hidden in our June article if you rather not have the latest data and learning experience.

Help HVDN grow as a supporting member 

and you even get to learn something for less than $1 a month, not just limited to data analysis and visualization

Author: Steve Bossert K2GOG (Co-Founder, HVDN)

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