A couple years ago, ArcGIS.com became the premier Internet portal guiding users to their GIS destinations. It was an innovative, creative and informative way to re-introduce GIS to the user community. ArcGIS Online gives users a free personal account to create, store, share and manage maps, applications, and data on a cloud-based system. This means that content resides and runs on remote infrastructure—that is, in the cloud.

Today, Esri not only avails free personal use on ArcGIS Online but extends capability to the organizational level—a feat that further capitalizes on the advantages of the cloud for geospatial management, rapid deployment and scalability.

For surveyors who have avoided using GIS in the past due to the high cost of software, this online tool represents a valuable opportunity. But what’s the best way to get started if you’ve never used it before?

First, if you don’t already have one, get an Esri Global Account. An Esri Global Account gives you access to a host of valuable GIS services offered on ArcGIS.com. If you already have a Global ID, you will need to register your Esri Global Account to become a member of ArcGIS Online. This membership will allow the creation, discovery and sharing of your personal “mashups”—data, maps, and applications from multiple sources that are combined to reveal new information that aids in better visualization and understanding.

The ribbon at the top of the page lists ArcGIS (Home Page), Gallery, Map, Groups, My Content and a Search Bar. The Gallery contains maps and web applications as well as mobile applications and is an excellent starting point. You can spend countless hours in the Gallery, discovering rich geospatial content that could also be incorporated into homemade mashups.

Once you are signed in, select Map from the ribbon. The page should look similar to the one shown above (Figure 1). “My Map” is the default title given to your map, but you can give it a more meaningful name so that others can find it later. 

To the left column of the screen you’ll see, “Make your own map.” In just four easy steps, you can create a map and share it online.

Step 1 - Choose an area. Here you can zoom in on the map and pan to your area of interest. You can also type in an address or place. In the search bar at the top right next to Bookmarks, enter  “Orlando, Florida.” Select the magnifying glass icon on the search bar or press the Enter key. The tool zooms to the entered location—in this case, Orlando—and centers it on the map (Figure 2).

Step 2 - Decide what you want your map to show. Select a base layer or base map that correlates to the information you want to include. Basemaps are maps that give a relational backdrop to the information you are trying to represent and include data layers such as images, streets and parcels. The default basemap is a topographic map. Details of the topographic map or any layer can be accessed by selecting the “Show Contents of the Map” icon (outlined in red in Figure 3 above).

Move your cursor next to the layer name “Topographic” to reveal an arrow. Select the arrow to open a properties window showing specific functions that can be performed on the layer. Typical functions include renaming the layer, moving the position of the layer up or down, changing symbology, adjusting transparency, zooming to the layer and the data layer’s description, etc. (As a side note, description is important and has been one of the heated debates over the years between surveying and GIS regarding the appropriate use of data. Data must be fit for the intended purpose, and the more metadata about the layer, the more suitable its selection.)

Select “Description” to reveal a new page (see Figure 4) with a description of the layer and to access and use constraints, map contents, credits, etc. This is where you will manage the information about the use of your map.

Each layer in your basemap tells a story by building on the previous layer and revealing the unique spatiality through the layer order and combinations. One thing to remember is that each layer is created with its own level of detail; therefore, each element shown on the map is based on the original map scale. Some have limited ranges, so a take good look at the metadata before you zoom in or out and discover that your layer has suddenly disappeared.

To change the default basemap, select “Basemap” and choose “Bing Maps Aerial” (Figure 5). For our example, the map will change and replace the topo with a pretty decent aerial image of Orlando.

Step 3 - Add useful layers. The non-static nature of the map means you can add and subtract layers, look at different perspectives and create a dynamic view that evolves into useful spatial information. However, we don’t want to create the wheel, so how can we find out what is out there already? A quick search using some keywords reveals layers that can be added. Select “Add,” choose “Search for Layers” and type in your keywords. You can search through ArcGIS Online, the web, a GIS server or even your own content for related data to add to your map. For our Orlando map, using the keyword “NGS” lists NGS Survey Control Points. By selecting “Add to Map,” we can add the layer on top of the image (see Figure 6). Metadata on the NGS Survey Control Points are also revealed.

There are also many rich features and functions listed in the ArcGIS Services Directory, which is a huge topic by itself. Selecting the highlighted icon (Figure 7) will show the contents of the map and access the allowed properties of the layer. Note that the icon to the immediate right expands the map’s legend. If you select one of the symbols, a popup window appears and gives information on the control (Figure 8). Scroll down to see more. These popups are configurable, and you can remove, add and even format fields.

Let’s add the BLM Public Land Survey System Layer to the map. Using the same procedure we used to find the survey control points, search for “PLSS” within ArcGIS Online and add the layer to the map. Your map should now look like the one in Figure 9.

Let’s add another layer, the USA Topo Maps—this was the default base layer when you first started the map. Search for and add this layer. Note that the Topo Map raster covers all the other layers. Remember the little arrow next to the layer? Click on the arrow and select “Transparency.” Set it near 60 percent so that the aerial will show up beneath the topo layer. You can also add the Soils Survey for another combination of data. It all depends on the questions you are trying to answer. When using the rasters, transparency will be your best friend.

Remember that each dataset has metadata associated with it, so view its description for details on how it can and should be used. Click on the control to the north of section number 36, as shown in Figure 10. Cycle through the popup window (Note the top of the popup window [1 of 5]), to reveal the attribute data associated with each of the layers beneath the control. Popups can also include links, such as the one in Survey Control Points attribute Data Source.

Scroll down through the survey control attributes toward the bottom and click on the Data Source Link – More Info.  The link takes you to the NGS Data Sheet. Of course, this is no big feat, but it saves time when you have all the information in one place and at your fingertips. (Did I mention that this was all free?)

You can also add layers from files such as shapefiles, GPS or text files or from the Web to add a web service or KML. In these cases, you will need to know the URL for the data.

One of the options I like is the ability to create an editable layer. Editable layers are a simple but effective tool when it comes to collaboration and communication with engineers, planners and clients. Select “Add” once again and choose “Create Editable Layer” as shown in Figure 11.

Name the layer “Boundary Survey.” Select “Freehand Area” from the areas menu. Click the mouse at a starting point and draw a boundary area. Then enter a title and description for the area (Figure 12).

Click on “Details” to view the content of the layers you added, then click on the survey boundary properties. You can also set visibility scaling here, which is why when you scale in or out of the other layers we added, features appear and disappear at certain scales. Click on the newly created area to list the attributes. You will get a popup with information. More importantly, the window will list the information from all the other layers that were stacked beneath.

Step 4 – Save and share your map. There is a lot more that could be discussed, but at this point let’s save our map and give it a name, such as “GeoDataPoint ArcGIS Online Tutorial.” The map title at the top has changed from displaying “My Map” to displaying “GeoDataPoint ArcGIS Online Tutorial” (Figure 13). Now the map can be shared with the public or with a group within the ArcGIS online community. Select ”Share” and check “Everyone (public).”

You can embed these maps into your website; create web applications from templates that are already there; or share them through social media such as Twitter or Facebook. You can also limit access by going to Groups and creating a group specifically for your specific clients. Finding the map you created is easy. Your maps will be stored in My Content as shown in Figure 14. My Content has typical file management functionality; you can create folders to compartmentalize your maps, add items, move, delete and share.

So now you know how to get access to ArcGIS Online and the valuable resources that lie within. You know how to look for specific content and add different layers to a basemap. You know how to create an editable layer and access the information from all the layers relating to the editable survey boundary layer. And you know how to name the map and share it with others. Still, this introduction just scratches the surface on what can be accomplished with ArcGIS Online now that access to these resources is not impeded by hardware and the software residing on your computer.

GIS is moving to the cloud, and the ability to access a broad range of resources remotely is enabling the future of GIS for both individuals and organizations. Maps created in ArcGIS Online can be incorporated into Business Analyst Online to produce some free or relatively inexpensive reports, and the free ArcGIS Explorer Online can be used to develop highly functional GIS presentations.

ArcGIS Online is a powerful resource. Learning it and understanding how to use it effectively can push your capabilities to the next level.