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I didn’t actually plan to stay for the TAPR board meeting after the last scheduled conference presentation on Saturday. My brain was still revving high in neutral while I tried to absorb some of what I had just been hearing.

So I was going over my notes and scribbling a few more thoughts when I realized that there was actually some sort of meeting happening around me.  Too late to escape now, so I kind of tuned out and played with my tablet; unlike work meetings, I actually had technological pacifiers with me this time.

I started to get interested in spite of myself.  I did not actually know that much about Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (of which perhaps only “amateur” is still entirely accurate, followed by “radio”) prior to the weekend. I’d heard them referenced a few times as being a good starting point for digital modes in amateur radio, but their web site didn’t exactly shout out at me what sort of organization it is.  If anything, I assumed it was one of the random electronics companies targeting amateurs as a way to push kit.

I have a little more context now. From the Organization page on the site, the goals of TAPR are to

  1. support R&D efforts in the area of amateur digital communications,
  2. disseminate information on packet and digital communications,
  3. provide affordable and useful kits for experimenters and hobbyists,
  4. pursue and help advance the amateur art of communications, and
  5. support publications, meetings, and standards in the area of amateur digital communications.

TAPR is a member-supported non-profit amateur research and development organization.  They play with radios and make them do cool things.

A disturbance in the Force

There was a sense, however, of concern at this meeting. Membership is not as robust as once it was, and while they have some kit inventory in stock, they aren’t moving it as fast as they’d like, and those proceeds support some of their efforts. As a volunteer-run organization, everyone’s time is constrained. The question was brought up as to what exactly TAPR’s role ought to be; how do they best support those goals above?

Several people in the (much-diminished) crowd had ideas and some good questions.  I did not take very good (any) notes for this part, but I believe it was Steve Stroh, N8GNJ, who posited that for many people the Digital Communications Conference was TAPR, and indeed perhaps should be even more of TAPR’s focus. It seemed a good point to me; this DCC set a record for attendance, breaking the previous record from 1996 (which was also in Seattle, perhaps not coincidentally).  The DCC has been operating in its current form as a funding-neutral joint operation between ARRL and TAPR since that conference (according to the TAPR history page). Several people thought that perhaps TAPR ought to re-examine the nature of that partnership.

Another issue brought up was just how TAPR was supporting and encouraging digital innovation, particularly in an era where many of the cool techie projects end up on Kickstarter or something similar (e.g. HackRF, which I also desperately want without having any clue what I’d do with it).  TAPR has been supporting Chris Testa, KD2BMH, in his awesome Whitebox project.  Is there still a need for that sort of support model?  Would it scale?

Communication and promotion are somewhat lacking.  This owes largely to the volunteer, free time nature of the organization.  Regardless, it was an issue.  Several people (why didn’t I take notes?) pointed out that things like Whitebox should have been written up for QST (ARRL’s magazine) and that there were a lot of opportunities to publicize the state of the art which weren’t being seized.  The quarterly PDF magazine isn’t quite cutting it.

Unsolicited opinions

I’m not a TAPR member (yet; I will quite likely talk myself into this) and don’t really have a dog in this fight. Regardless, this is the Internet and unqualified opinions about other people’s business are a staple of the medium, so here are some outside observations, freely given and worth every cent you pay for them:

1. Communication has to be a bigger priority. With a modern content management system and some people willing to put in some time, TAPR’s site could be a real information clearinghouse for the latest and greatest things happening in digital.  Time for a site update and scrub.  Half of the purpose of the conference is to put people in touch with the other clever folks who can help them solve problems; you don’t necessarily need to wait for a conference to do that if there’s a place everyone can go to read about what is going on.

2. Seriously re-examine the relationship with ARRL in doing the DCC.  I did join the ARRL when I licensed and I am on a bunch of e-mail lists and I check out the site fairly frequently, but I had no notice about DCC through any of these venues until way late in the game. ARRL is not promoting this nearly as hard as they ought to be, and I kind of question what TAPR is getting from the association.

3. Publications.  More.  The technology is out there, but holy crap the documentation sucks.  Not always, but often.  Separating the wheat from the chaff is a full-time job if you are getting started.  They don’t have to be huge, weighty tomes–hell, they don’t even have to be paper–but good clear introductions to concepts and instructions on how to get rolling would be a real value-added benefit.  If you can push these things out through a digital publisher, there’s no awkward inventory hanging around five years later when they’re out of date.

I don’t see TAPR’s best bet going forward so much pushing the technological boundaries as enabling other people to do so, and enabling still other people to hear about it.  There has to be an active presence pushing these things. (If there were an adequate number of people writing about DCC, Bruce Perens wouldn’t have ever noticed my little blog post about it.)  I refuse to believe the potential audience for the field is this small, or that no one is capable and willing to write about it.

More thoughts to come, especially on HamWAN, but I’ve got to actually get up when my alarm goes off tomorrow, and that will happen at 0445, which is not nearly far enough away for my taste.

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