Since we began our Surveying GIS journey more than 10 years ago--exploring both the potential and value of Geographic Information Systems to surveyors--much has changed. We have discussed a variety of subjects in this series, including software, hardware, security, organization, education and training, and many more. But one element of GIS that has not changed, and probably won't, is the data.

In the beginning, colleagues often accused me of having my head in the clouds when it came to GIS. Guess what? It’s still there. Only these days, I have a lot of company. This is largely because a great deal of GIS data now resides in what is referred to as “the cloud.” As the technology advances, many of the challenges associated with each of the important issues we have covered are being successfully resolved using the power of the Internet.

One of the key issues we have focused on is the double-edged sword of data sharing and security. In that vein, Esri has been promoting the sharing of “authoritative”1 survey data for years. What has been lacking is a viable “carrot,” as in, a vehicle that has universal appeal, easy access and use, yet is still affordable and powerful. For more than three years, the focus of that effort has been fixed in the cloud, or more precisely, cloud technology.

We first visited ArcGIS Online in 2010 when we discussed the National Parcel Cadastre. At that time we profiled the “Value Analysis Dashboard” for foreclosed properties in Oakland County, Michigan. Since then, the number of groups using ArcGIS Online has expanded greatly. There is an extensive and growing library of maps and datasets that can be accessed and leveraged. Now users can even create their own custom tools using their own logos.

Once a map is saved, the user can open it in the ArcGIS Online Map Viewer or ArcGIS Explorer to perform most editing functions.

Esri refers to this application as “collaborative content management.” Now you can view, create, edit and save maps using an existing Esri global account.2 To use an existing account, the user must register it on the ArcGIS Online homepage ( That takes one mouse click. If you don’t have a global account, you can create a new one. That takes about a minute. Registering your global account provides 2 gigabytes of cloud storage and activates a whole new level of mobile GIS. Users can log into their account from anywhere there is an Internet connection and can use (or share) anything saved in the account. This is an extremely powerful sharing function. It is totally consistent with the growing trend toward a “data centric”3 working environment.

When using ArcGIS Online in the single-user format, you only need a single user online account. But you have the option of creating groups. You can create and edit maps from any data that can be accessed online, and you can add some of your own “authoritative” data.

There are components to the ArcGIS Online experience. ArcExplorer is an embedded component to ArcGIS Online. You can now access ArcGIS Explorer online from the ArcGIS Online interactive page. It is no longer necessary to download and install it, but that is still an option. ArcGIS Explorer is a continually developing free mapping product. In its current incarnation, it incorporates the ease of use of Google Maps with many of the powerful ArcGIS features. You don’t even need an account to launch ArcGIS Explorer.

ArcGIS Explorer is the primary editing engine for ArcGIS Online. Once a map is saved, the user has the option of opening it in the ArcGIS Online Map Viewer or ArcGIS Explorer to perform most editing functions. The online version of ArcGIS Explorer has all the editing power of the downloadable version. When importing shapefiles from previous versions, the current version requires the shapefile to be archived into a .zip file for easy importation. Other than that, it works much the same as earlier versions. There are a few other subtle differences, but users that are familiar with earlier versions of ArcGIS Explorer will transition into the newer environment with little difficulty.

ArcGIS Explorer has excellent support for a free product. Clicking the “help” button brings the user to the ArcGIS help page. A comprehensive set of support files will guide the user through all the functions in the application. There are also helpful videos. Whether the user is just getting started with GIS or is an experienced user, there is help here.

ArcGIS Explorer shows the shared San Diego high-precision GPS network.

There are numerous groups already created for ArcGIS Online. We first introduced one in this column in 2010 (“The National Cadastre Part Two”). Many of these are already useful because they contain tax and parcel information for various localities, not only in the United States, but also around the world.

One of the most powerful features of ArcGIS Online is its ability to link with popular social media networks. For instance, you can embed a map of your own construction on your website, Facebook page or social networking posts.

The single-user version of ArcGIS Online is powerful itself. You can make custom maps and add some of your own data. Shapefiles are easy to use, and .TXT and CSV with proper formatting work as well. One of the advantages of working in the cloud is speed. Running large applications like CAD and GIS programs ties up a significant portion of your processor’s resources. Having a large, local database is also a significant drag if your local hard drive is at 80 percent or more of its maximum capacity. If you have a high-speed Internet connection, your map files will typically open faster than those stored on your local hard drive. Changing your map view and zooming in and out is usually faster in the cloud as well.

In the free single-user version of ArcGIS Online, you can make edits to maps, features and presentations. These maps, mashups and the like are created from published data. You can also use data you have created, like .TXT files, CSV files and even shapefiles. You just cannot make edits to that data within the ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Explorer environment.

Just as this issue was going to press, Esri released ArcGIS Online for organizations, a paid subscription service designed to make the application more useful to groups and firms. Through a paid annual subscription, organizations can “off-load selected processing activities using cloud services” and store, use and manage much more of their own authoritative data in the cloud. The service also allows the user to determine who can view and use that data. For organizations that didn't have the opportunity to participate in the ArcGIS Online beta program or be part of the early adopters program, a 30-day evaluation is available through Esri says the new service will “change how you think about mapping and GIS.” What do you think?


1          Authoritative data is data where the sole or principle author is sourced. “Crowd-sourced” data is anonymous and tends to have a lower pedigree.

2          Esri global account: this is an all purpose login for Esri users. It is used for software registrations, conference registrations and news dissemination.

3          Data centric is a term generally meaning an environment where data plays a central role. It is often understood to mean the physical location of the database is secondary to user access regardless of the user’s location.