Rich, KY6R with the Innaugural DX Coffee “Best Communication” Award for the TX5K DX-pedition
VK0EK DX-pedition Customer Support “Mission Statement” and Goals
The intention of the Customer Support System is to provide the DX-pedition and DX Community with Timely, Friendly and Proactive Customer Support. After all – the DX Community are the investors in the project, and so deserve top notch support and communication.
The VK0EK DX-pedition has major sponsors with 40% who come from the Science Community and 60% from the Ham Radio and DX Community. So – you can be sure that the motivation behind the VK0EK Customer Support System is to provide Timely, Friendly and Proactive Customer Support to both the science as well as the Ham Radio DX Community. For the DX Community, our main goal is to make as many ATNO’s but also get everyone in the log – ATNO’s and band fills combined.
The Current State of the DX-pedition “Pilot” System
After being a Pilot on four large DX-peditions – including one to a Top 10 Most Needed entity, I found the concept of the Pilot System lacking. The intent of the Pilot Relay system is to:
- Collect feedback and requests from the DX Community (DX-ers), synthesize and filter this information and provide “priority feedback” to the operating team making the QSO’s at the DX-pedition location
- Provide education for DX-ers who seem to need some help in their approach to earn their ATNO or band fill – typically this is in the areas of propagation or antenna advice, but might also include operating hints and tips
- Receive news from the DX-pedition site and relay that back to the DX Community
Pilots are generally chosen from a pool of fairly well known DX-ers – those who have demonstrated that they are competent DX-ers, but who also have good communication, and shall we say “technical support” skills.
In my experience, this model is well intentioned but does not work that well. This is because:
- There is usually not bi-directional communication between the DX-pedition site and the pilots
- The DX Community floods the Pilots email with mail that becomes overwhelming and “messy” to process
- The Lead Pilot – who is supposed to gather, synthesize and forward feedback to the team has to deal with aggregated and summarized email from all of the other Pilots
- The Pilots – who need to sleep and go to work (if they are not retired) may not be available when the DX Community needs them
- Email between the Pilots quickly adds to the mess of emails they are handling – thus “muddling” the important messages
- Most DX-peditions do not empower the Pilots to give up to the minute information to the Dx Community, and so that community usually turns to forums like the eHam DX Forum or even the DX Cluster to either cheer their QSO (thus clogging the cluster) or complaining on these forums or cluster. This means all of the potential information for the DX-pedition Team gets syphoned off into places that serve no useful purpose for that team.
The best pilot system that worked wonderfully well was the VU7AG Lakshwadweep DX-pedition. But it was in no way “traditional”. I was invited as a pilot specifically because of the success of the TX5K “Live Blog” which you can find here:
The idea with that blog was to add in a “near real time” update of news and information, and my number one priority was actually to provide news and information to the families of the DX-peditioners as well as to the DX Community.
I was very proud to be on the VU7AG DX-pedition Team as a Pilot, and was blown away by something they did – which was a dream of mine. They “live blogged” right from the island DURING the radio operations. No one had ever done that before – and I want to commend them (again) and still will never forget how they did this and how exciting it was. I worked very closely with Deepak, VU2CDP – and I want to thank him for raiding the bar even higher – for me – this is the best part of amateur radio – pushing the envelop further. For an “armchair DX-er” like me – I felt like I was along for the ride – even more so than TX5K.
Bob Schmieder, KK6EK with the DX Coffee “Best Communication” Plaque
Enter Technology – Ham Radio Operators “Advancing the Art of Amateur Radio”
Technology is the Ham Radio enthusiast’s friend. We live in a time where radios are a combination of radio, computer and network. We even have “cloud” based DX-ers – who use technologies such as Remote Ham Radio! There are “Makers” who use all kinds of new technologies – from 3D Printers to Arduino and Raspberry Pi based radio and messaging systems – and where the Art and Science of Ham Radio is pushed forward daily.
Fully Sponsored Satellite Gear and Air Time
The VK0EK DX-pedition has an anonymous donor / sponsor who is sponsoring 100% of our satellite gear as well as air time. As a part of this agreement – we have been asked to “push the paradigm” of the scientific side of our Expedition – and include sending photo’s, video, telemetry data.
We already have several media outlets who want this content – so now you might get a better picture why we are going so “tech heavy”. The Science side of the equation is now in lock step with the idea of advancing the radio art – because we will have the capability to do what no other DX-pedition has ever been able to do.
So, How Does This Work?
The DXA network uses one Explorer 710 BGAN terminal for the DXA network – where DX-ers can see their QSO’s show up within one minute of being logged, and a second Explorer 710 BGAN terminal for “everything else” – which includes instant messaging, sending streaming video, recorded video, photo’s and telemetry data.
All data is sent to an Amazon AWS Cloud based set of servers – the DXA data via the DXA software, and the “other” data using several different technologies to upload data and send messages in real time.
I’ve circled the DXA message box in yellow. The operators on Heard Island can send messages to the DX Community giving important advice such as “We are re-fueling, please QRX for 10 minutes” or “We are on Spit and starting our 30M operations”, or “Please spread out from 14.190 – 14.200”, etc, etc.
On the non DXA satellite BGAN – messages can be sent “behind the scenes” to and from (bi-directionally) between the operators and our support team. Speaking of the support team – we’ve assembled a geographically diverse team of volunteers who can process incoming messages in near real time, discuss them in a live chat room, and forward the relevant ones to the team on the island, or save them for summary later. The hope is that we can provide the feedback necessary to correct problems or take advantage of surprise openings while they’re still happening. And, by using a distributed virtualized approach instead of a 1:1 mapping between a region and its pilot, we hope to provide around the clock coverage.
We are also being provided with two iSat phones – again the gear and Sim time 100% sponsored. If we have network issues – this will be our backup. We also can fall back to using a conventional HF link between Rich, KY6R and the team if there are satellite issues.
Support “Ticketing” Ensures Best Customer Support
If you look at the DXA page above, you will see the “EMAIL The Team” text – and you can click on that and email the team. This automatically will let you send an email to our technical support help desk (Freshdesk), and your request will be queued for one of our support staff to handle in “near real time”.
Freshdesk also allows for submitting a ticket using a web form, and we will decide exactly how we will implement this during the “run up” to the expedition in only 4 months. Bypassing email altogether is a very attractive idea . . . . stay tuned!
We will have 10 support team members who will read your request and queue anything that needs to go to the island immediately. Our team will consist of seasoned DX-ers who can handle your request – requests for the science portion of the project, and IT helpdesk requests from the team (i.e. “A Router blew up – what should we do now”) kinds of issues.
The team members will be comprised of at least 2 people in each part of the world that has sunlight, which means someone will always “be on duty”. And finally, all will be paged using their Smart Phones and have 100% bi-directional communications with the team.
The only team that has even come close to doing this is VU7AG – and we feel quite connected to that team as we have shared ideas between our TX5K and VU7AG DX-pedition.
The TX5K Style “Live Blog” Will Also Happen with VK0EK
You might have noticed we have two web sites – one which is at http://www.heardisland.org
And the other, http://www.vk0ek.org
The VK0EK.ORG web site is shown above, and it is actually a blog site. This is exactly what we used for TX5K – but we have greatly improved and expanded it. We will have several support team members live blogging – so the blog will be running 24 x 7. Who knows – since we are on the island for 3 weeks – maybe some of the team members on the island will also blog live from the island – exactly as VU7AG did. The on island team will also be sending all kinds of images – still, video and telemetry, and these will be posted on our web sites – in an effort to give you (the deserving) an experience that makes you feel like you are along for the ride and part of the team!
- If you still like the Pilot model – your DX-pedition can greatly reduce email confusion and management. Its even possible to take email completely out of the equation.
- Freshdesk is FREE, its cloud based – there is nothing to install, no server farm, no ISP needed. You can can link to it from your DX-pedition web site. There is no coding or hosting whatsoever. You can even use Freshdesk to host your “how to work us” hints and tips. Clublog uses Freshdesk for their technical support site
- You can integrate bi-directional messaging between the DX Community and your DX-pedition team – and still use Pilots to sort through organized tickets instead of emails. This means your pilots have a one stop “command and control” center that is light years ahead of using personal emails
- You have 24×7 “always on” customer support. ALL of this is accessible from a Smart Phone
- You can give your sponsors and donors more for their investment in your DX-pedition
- The ticketing system and messaging system are “disconnected” logically from the BGAN satellite network. This means if your satellite internet goes down, your Customer Support system does not. You can still manage DX-er support requests, do your work and use alternative methods to get the message to and from the DX-pedition site (iSat phone or GASP – Ham Radio!)
- You can make your DX-pedition much more interactive and give the DX-ers an experience where they feel like they are “going along for the trip”
- Being better organized and having such a system can potentially mean more ATNO’s and more band fills
- The DX-pedition team has a very clear and authoritative “voice” with DXA’s message box – but even if you don’t use DXA, you can use simple SMS messaging from the DX-pedition site that won’t break your satellite bank – because at $7 a megabyte – you can easily afford to better keep your pilots and the entire DX Community informed. You can give DX-ers information that will help make the pileups run smoother, and also keep the families of the DX-peditioners better informed
- This could potentially cut down on DQRM
- Automatic workflow – all support tickets can be prioritized and aggregated meaning the support representatives (“Pilots”) can spend their time providing more personal support of the DX-er, and NOT shuffling, prioritizing and aggregating email
So – to wrap it up – we are taking Customer Support for YOU the Expedition Investor very seriously and doing everything we can to try to “up the ante” of interactive Expeditioning and DX-peditioning!