Ham Radio for OpenStreeMap Mappers

After reading about the work OpenStreetMap volunteers did to provide necessary information to Haitian officials and citizens following the earthquake, I started to think about the similarities between OpenStreetMap volunteers and many amateur radio operators (often called “Ham” radio operators). Ham radio operators have long acted to provide necessary communications after natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) when communication infrastructure goes down. Moving past this specific example, OpenStreetMap mappers and Hams turn out to be such similar groups that it’s surprising that there is not more overlap than currently exists. Both are interested in building and sharing knowledge, experimenting with new technologies, and often just employing cool gadgets while exploring the outdoors. In the interest of stimulating inter-hobby discussion, this post is a “Ham radio for Mappers” primer. I will also post a “OpenStreetMap for Hams” primer to a few Ham forums.

Rather than boring readers by trying to detail what amateur radio is, and what technologies may be useful to mappers, I have written about a hypothetical mapping party where the fictional characters are using amateur radio equipment to drastically improve the mapping experience. The idea of this piece is not to exhaustively list the useful technologies, but to inspire mappers to supplement their GPS tools with amateur radio equipment, and to tap into the like-minded (and much larger) pool amateur radio hobbyists.


A group of OpenStreetMap volunteers decide to become amateur radio operators so that they can operate a more coordinated, and social mapping party. They get their licenses and join the local amateur radio club, gaining like-minded participants, technical assistance, and in one case, borrowed equipment in the process. Being members of the local club, they are also able to use the club’s expensive repeater equipment to communicate both voice and position data from anywhere in the city.

The group is an eclectic group with a variety of equipment. Herbert is working from home with his desktop computer and an amateur VHF base station. Becky is “bicycle mobile,” using a handheld amateur radio (aka. HT) with a speaker-mike on her collar, as well as a small Amateur Position Reporting System (APRS) transmitter kit on loan from one of the Hams the group met at the local amateur radio club meetings. Charley and Cecelia are in their car, which they have equipped with the ultimate setup for a mapping party: a high-end mobile radio capable of simultaneous voice and APRS communication. The radio transmits their location as well as plots incoming APRS data, including real-time locations of other surveyors and way-points generated by Herbert, on their on-dash GPS navigator -which is, of course, is also using OpenStreetMap. Lastly, Ian, an OpenStreetMap volunteer half-way across the country is also working from home but has Internet linked (via IRLP) his local amateur repeater with the group’s city-wide repeater using a mobile radio he picked up second-hand and set up in his office. Ian is able to speak with the others as if he was in the same city, as well as watch the near real-time surveyor positions plotted in his web browser .

Herbert is able to transmit way-points for Charley and Cecelia to investigate as they drive. Herbert’s APRS client is capable of recieving telemetry via radio or the Internet and displays the position of each mapper over OpenStreetMap. He can watch in real-time as they move into incompletely mapped areas. Each of the mobile mappers provide regular voice reports to Herbert and Ian about points of interest, street names, and others. Because Herbert and Ian can see the bicycle and car’s location, they need only report names and general locations like “Schneider park is to my right on the corner”. APRS provides coarse position locations, so is great for directing the mappers and following their progress, but each mapper also records more fine-grained GPS traces to their devices for upload to OpenStreetMap later.

Ten minutes into the party, Peter chimes in on the repeater. He is a long-time Ham and just heard about OpenStreetMap. He is out for a walk with his wife and heard the party on his trusty old HT. He decides to join the fun by reporting points of interest and street names, reading out coordinates from his GPS enabled cell phone. It’s too bad he didn’t hear about this earlier, as he could have installed an APRS client on his Internet-enabled phone to follow the party!

After an hour of busy reports from the mappers and feverish data-entry by Ian and Herbert, the mappers decide to call it a day. They chat, or rag-chew in Ham slang, while traveling to the local pub where most of the group meet up afterward for some geeky mapping and/or radio discussion.


For mappers interested in becoming an amateur radio operator, the Internet can be a wealth of both good and misleading information. The best option is often to locate and contact your local amateur radio club. The clubs usually run regular courses to make getting your license a simple affair. The test in most countries is simple and straight forward, allowing almost anyone the ability to obtain their license without any necessary prior education. The practical knowledge gained studying for the exam, and by frequenting club meetings can make radio-communication an effective skill and endlessly rewarding hobby.

Jason Locklin
Callsign: VE3MAL

Sources of more information:
Radio Amateurs of Canada: http://www.rac.ca/en/amateur-radio/faq/
American Radio Relay League: http://www.arrl.org/licensing-preparation-exams
APRS: www.aprs.org and www.aprs.fi
IRLP: www.irlp.net

Note: In the story above, the characters were using entirely “line-of-sight” radio -i.e., VHF or UHF. When many people think of Ham radio they may think of HF, which is different and capable of world-wide communication.