Intro to ArcGis

ArcGIS.com is a web service, just like Google Maps. However, it’s much more powerful.

ArcGis can do pretty much everything that Google Maps does (create layers, add markup, change base maps, save your data, share to others, run datasets in and out from other other applications) and it can do a lot more.

In fact, it can do more than even Google Earth can do, but we’ll get to those things later. For now, let’s just view ArcGIS as a super Google Maps.

Let’s start with some background. ArcGIS.com is a creation of Esri. Esri used to mean ‘Environmental Research Systems Institute’…now it just means ‘The company known as Esri.’ They pretty much own the heavy duty geospatial tools business – everyone who needs enterprise-level GIS uses them. They also hold a conference every summer in San Diego (http://www.esri.com/events/user-conference) and it has a truly jaw-dropping number of sessions covering an insanely wide variety of topics.

ArcGIS.com is Esri’s move to the web. Thankfully, you can use it for free (once you set up an individual account with Esri)…plus Lehigh has an institutional account (which you can access with your Lehigh computing ID).

To be honest, I haven’t yet figured out the advantages of using the institutional account; I do most of what I do here through my personal account…but stay tuned.

Once you’re logged in, let’s make a map: Go to Content (it appears to the right of Help after you log in)

Once you’re in Content, choose Create > Map

Esri will force you to title the map and give it a tag, but once you’re through that, you get a nice, fresh map with the default base layer (Topographic) and nothing else.

From this point, we’re going to try adding some data. To do the sorts of things you do in Google Maps, try Add > Map Notes

Just like in Google Maps, you can add points and paths…but you can also add polygons! Arrows! Circles! Text labels! Basically, this web service is made for map-making…Google Maps was just made for some light markup.

Here I got carried away with the text tool. Once you close up the editing (i..e, the ‘Add Features’ dialog), you will see that your new layer is now stacked on top of the basemap.

But this just scratches the surface of what can be done. The other options under Add are where the real action is.

  • Add Layer from File lets you upload other datasets…unfortunately, not a KML or KMZ file, but other ones that we will be getting into.
  • Add Layer from Web lets you bring in a file that’s already parked on the web. Oddly enough, when you go this route, you CAN bring in a KML or KMZ file. (I have to warn you that the results aren’t perfect, though.)
  • Search for Layers is where the real excitement is. True, in Google Earth you can add layers, just like here. However, the layers in ArcGIS are a lot more diverse than the layers in Google Earth AND they’re user-generated. For example: Try searching for “Lehigh” – you can see the municipal boundaries in Lehigh county! Google Earth doesn’t have that. Try searching “cholera” – you get TWO different versions of the John Snow cholera map that we looked at earlier!

Saving: Unlike Google Maps, you do need to Save your work (or do Save As to save different versions).

Sharing: Like in Google Maps, you need to Share your map in order to let others see it. This is one instance in which working in a Lehigh account is better than a personal account: You can share a map only to Lehigh users, or even to a sub-group within Lehigh. But again: I don’t find this to be too necessary for the kind of work that I do.

As stated up top, ArcGIS.com does a lot more, but if you’ve followed the thread thus far, you’re off to a good start.

Here’s a recommended activity: Put your Google Earth work online, then import it into ArcGIS.com. Once it’s there, mark it up, change the base map – make it a better map, and maybe even a better dataset. You’ll be pleased with the results.