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Electronic Certificates

Jari Jokiniemi (OH3BU) on December 20, 2002
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Electronic Certificates

Most contesters seem to like certificates quite a lot. Look at their radio room walls. They are often filled with awards and plagues. It surely is nice to have some physical proof of the success we've achieved, whether it is the first place in the world in CQ WW or winning a minor section in a mid-size contest like SAC. Contest prizes and other operating awards like DXCC are pretty similar in nature: they are there to remind what the award owner has done.

There are some practical differencies, though. DXCC and similar operating awards are almost always economically self-sustained programs. You mail the QSL cards or equivalent proof of the contacts that you've made to the award program organizer, you include a processing fee with your application, and then you receive the award or plague via mail. In essence, you buy the operating award. It's not a big business, nobody is earning huge amounts of money of it, but it is not generating losses, either. Contest awards, on the other hand, are mostly paid by the contest organizer. There is no contest participation fee, prize processing fee, or equivalent payment to cover the costs. Some plagues are sponsored by dedicated individuals and organizations that want to encourage contest participation in some areas or in specific contest classes, but the vast majority of the certificates are causing costs to the contest sponsor. Ok, the printing price and mailing costs of one certificate are not that many dollars, but when you add them all together, the total sum becomes considerable.

Note that this is only the tip of the iceberg when considering the costs. In order for you to receive the contest prize, someone must have checked all the logs, someone must have sorted them into score order and into different categories, and someone must have made judgements whether or not any rule infringements have occurred or not. The only way to make this concept workable is the volunteers who do all the hard work for free. Often the heaviest burden remains in the shoulders of only one or two truly dedicated individuals who spend most of their weekends and holidays to support their favourite contest. Imagine how much deficit each major contest would produce if these volunteers were paid a decent salary of the work they do with the logs.

Thus we should not complain too much if sometimes our certificates are mailed to us a bit late. Our volunteers do have lives outside of contests, too. Or at least they should have. This means that there can occasionally be more important things for them to do than mailing our particular certificates. We don't want our volunteers to experience a burn-out just because of our certificates, do we? It may also be that some of our volunteers choose to change to other tasks and it may not always be that easy to find someone to replace the retired ones. Being a contest manager is a tough job, you see. Note also that the contest sponsors will undoubtly face problems if the economy slows down and that will inevitably have some effect on our certificates, too.

By now it should be obvious that according to the hard imperatives of the economy the only ways to improve the situation are either to increase the revenues or lower the costs of creating and delivering the certificates.

It is amazing how strongly we object the first option. We have usually spent thousands of dollars to our radios and antennas. We may even have bought and built a dedicated contest QTH. We may have travelled to exotic locations, which is not free either. At the minimum, we have at least invested the whole weekend to operate the contest, and remember, time is money. And yet, we so easily expect that the contest certificate should come to us for free and quickly without us being involved in any way. Note that there are a few, though not many, exceptions to this. ARRL has managed to create a mug business around a contest. It is obvious that despite of the relatively small amounts of money involved regarding one contester, the vast majority of contesters are not willing to spend money on certificates.

Thus it might be a good idea to look at the second option. How to lower the costs? A great development has already been done on log checking. Cross checking of the logs which has been a huge manual task has been automated. This has not only reduced the log checking work but it has also improved the accuracy as an extra bonus. When all the logs are received in electronic format, the log checking process can be almost completely automated. Only the parts that call for judgement by a person require manual work.

So why not do the same for certificates? Why do we still want the contest organizers to print and write the awards centrally and then mail them to us through the ordinary post system? Isn't there an easier way? Indeed there is. We could create certificates electronically. It's not rocket science to create PDF files or JPG files automatically to represent certificates. The contest results are already in many cases calculated and recorded using computers, and adding certificate generation capabilities to these systems is a relatively small task compared to log checking. Neither does it cause much difficulties to provide all these files at the contest organizer's web site as disk space is cheap nowadays and the creation process can be heavily automated. Anyone who wants to receive a certificate could then download it from the web site. If she wants a hard copy to be put on the wall, she can easily print it herself.

I do anticipate some counter arguments. Let us discuss them one by one. First of all, the electronic certificate system relies on anybody wanting an award to have an internet access. This is not the case for everybody. There are countries where internet is not yet popular, it may even be prohibited on some places. Besides, despite of the possibility for net access, there are a lot of people who have chosen not to use this great communication media. For sure, some of these are active contesters, too. Thus it must be understood that eCertificates (a shortcut for electronic certificates) can not be the only solution. There must be an alternative more along the lines of the current post-based system. Well, that alternative can be offered. It can't possibly be more difficult than what we are already doing now. One could e.g. notify in the log that "if I win I can only accept paper certificates". Considering the fact that most of the logs are sent in electronic format, I'm pretty sure that the majority of the winners do have the technical means to receive eCertificates already now. That equals to remarkable cost savings.

It may also be that the look and feel of eCertificates are different from the current prizes. When you receive just a file which you may print yourself or choose not to print at all instead of an award that has been produced by a professional printing house and signed by the contest sponsors, you may rightfully feel that it's not the same thing. However, think about the basic question, what is it all about? Is it about the quality of the paper your award is printed on? Or is it so that you really love the original signature of N8BJQ? Would you feel less proud of your CQ WW Single Band certificate if it were printed in different color or size than now? I have a catch here. I did think about this differently when I was younger. I was a bit disappointed some twenty years ago when I received my first plague, actually a metallic plate, because it was only 10 cm wide. Later, however, I begun to appreciate more the fact that I did win it and think less about what it looks like. In some years the contest sponsor had more money to spend on a larger plate, and in some years the plates were smaller. However, anyone ever receiving such a plate had truly earned it by winning it in an honest fight. And that is the essence of all of these prizes. The value of a certificate is not in what it looks like but in what it represents.

Someone may still prefer the look and feel of the current certificates. An ordinary certificate to be printed and signed and mailed by the contest organizer could be offered as an alternative. But let's charge a nominal processing fee of it to cover the costs and to promote eCertificates. A dollar or two is surely not too much for that service, is it? We could even make plagues available for anyone who has won any class by using the same principle that the one who get's extra service pays the associated costs. The great part of the system is that it creates no additional nor hidden costs to those who are not interested in prizes.

With electronic transaction systems there often comes the question of security. It is naturally true that if eCertificates are implemented in a simple way then someone may be able print your certificate to hang on his wall. There are basically two things to consider here. The most apparent one is that what are the means to prevent this. Well, there are well known public key based authentication and encryption systems available. Many of those are in public domain. The web servers that host the eCertificates can be made secure by the same technical means than any other computing systems. Yes, it does require work, but it can be done if required. The eCertificates themselves can be made more secure against tampering by using e.g. steganography or equivalent technologies. The less apparent but very fundamental question is if we really need to make eCertificates secure at all. If someone prints your certificate it does not prevent you printing your own certificate by any means, not if the system has been created using any brains at all. Your glory of winning is not related to someone having a copy of your certificate also on her wall, or is it? If someone downloads your certificate and forges it to have his callsign instead of yours, everyone can easily see that he's a cheater, as your real certificate is still there on the internet to be seen by everyone. It may be that after some years the old certificates are removed from the net and thus your collegues might need to do some more footwork to prove if certain certificate is genuine or not. But you do know that your's is the real one because you were the winner. If there ever is a dispute with the cheater, there surely are many ways to prove who's right and who's not. I think that quite modest level of security is enough for eCertificates. That equals to less costs, again.

Electronic Certificates could ease the economic pressures of the contest sponsors, they could provide improved prize delivery times for the winners, and they could even be environmentally better than the current system. This is the future. Let's make it happen!

Member Comments: Add A Comment
Electronic Certificates Reply
by nh7a on December 21, 2002 Mail this to a friend!
The League takes a year to process contest certificates. CQ takes years. I am all for being able to download a certificate when the results are published.
Electronic Certificates Reply
by K5RT on December 25, 2002 Mail this to a friend!
While OH3BU does make some valid points, there are some factors that should be addressed that (at this time) preclude "E-Certificates" being issued.

1. It takes time to compile contest results. CQ actually prints the line scores in our magazine. As most of you know, ARRL has decided that its members no longer wish to see contest line scores on the pages of QST and posts them on the Internet for viewing. Either way, getting the scores into a viewable format (not to mention checking logs) does take time. ARRL has a staff of fulltime employees working in support of this task, CQ uses volunteers. Either way, this is a 4 to 6 month process when you allow for mailing of logs, cross checking and tabulation. For CQ, you need to add on another 60 days for the printing timeline.

2. Mistakes in the tabulated results do happen. All contest sponsors realize this and try to allow time for such errors to surface and be addressed. Why issue (or allow for print) invalid certificates when there can be only one winner of an award?

3. Not everyone who operates contests has a good Internet connection. This is becoming less of an issue with each passing year, but its still a concern when trying to download a large graphic file.

4. Certificate server management is also concern. Good security software does not come cheap. Not all contest sponsors can afford this expense. Additionally, how would the sponsor be able to track/manage those who want an "E-Certificate" as opposed to those who prefer an "original" copy? Its becomes one more headache for the contest sponsor to deal with, but I think this one could be handled pretty easily during the log submission process.

5. Finally, certificate quality will vary widely. I can see where the sponsor will wind up having to send "original" copies of certificates out for years to come because not everyone has the means to own a "Photo Quality" printer and they become dissatisfied with their copy of the certificate. Again, one more headache for the contest sponsor.

Closing thoughts. ARRL, CQ and other sponsors don't manage contests for any revenue opportunity. Its a "visibilty" (read that marketing) expense for most of us. Besides the "visibilty" for the sponsor, it is good for our hobby that we have contests. They promote activity, sharpening operating skills, and advancing the technical arts of our wonderful hobby.

The idea of providing a buck or two for a certificate is certainly appreciated, but I'm not sure how to manage this without adding to the timeline of certificate printing and mailing. One other item, who do the donatations get mailed to and how are they tracked, what currency is acceptable and so forth? Using credit cards for such small transactions isn't very cost effective. Its not a big deal, but its one more thing for the sponsor to have to handle. Maybe the sponsors themsevles have some ideas on this topic.

I'd like to offer a couple of ideas.

First, CQ can ALWAYS use help with getting certificates printed and mailed. If you are interested in helping out, please drop CQ an e-mail indicating your desire to help out. Please bear in mind, if you are willing to make such a committment, you really need to try to honor it.

Second, send a note or e-mail to the contest sponsor thanking them for their efforts. Even with a paid staff, many of the folks who "toil in the contesting vineyard" do so at the expense of time for something else.

As I started out my note, being able to generate your own certificate is certainly viable from a technical point of view right now, but I don't think the processes involved are ready for the challenge just yet.

This is an excellent topic for discussion and I am quite sure that just about every contest sponsor would appreciate your input and ideas. This subject is exactly like "E-QSL"s. Its a really great idea, the devil is how to do it while maintaining accuracy and security without adding to anyone's workload.

VY 73
Paul K5RT
Electronic Certificates Reply
by w7dra on December 26, 2002 Mail this to a friend!
interesting idea, i earn more certfs that i get, i guess i am too far down the food chain to get a certif for every bold listing in a mag. i mount EVERY award i receive, electronic media would be fine, its the rememberance that counts
Electronic Certificates Reply
by N6JLJ on December 27, 2002 Mail this to a friend!
No special security is needed. The security criterion for electronic [sic] certificates should be to match the current level of award forgery prevention--which is none. Anyone with more money than scruples can print their own awards and forge custom-made plaques today; they don't even need to be a ham.

W7DRA nailed it: the certificate is a rememberance. Working hard and doing as well as you can in a contest is its own reward. And forging a plaque or certificate that sits on the wall and reminds you every day that you not only didn't win, but are such a loser that you have to lie about it, surely is its own punishment.

I would gladly trade an original signature for speedy delivery of awards, and especially for reduced workload for contest staff, since this could lead to more and better contests.

It would be nice to escape the error of calling them "electronic" certificates, though. PDF files are even less electronic than paper (at least paper *contains* electrons). Why not just refer to it as PDF *delivery* of the award certificate?

73, Andy N6JLJ
Electronic Certificates Reply
by kr1g on December 28, 2002 Mail this to a friend!
Last I knew, DXCC was NOT self-substaining. It costs the ARRL a lot of money to run.

Interesting article however! And we don't really need any special security, as their isn't any now (ie, anyone can design/scan and print their own certificates now)

ted KT1V
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