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[[Updated at bottom, Sept.30, 2018]]

[[Updated again at bottom, April 28, 2020, recommending]]


Can you make sense of this table?


Fieldwork is a crucial student experience. Students need to gather data about situations with which they have personal experience, and explore that data in some depth, to understand issues of data quality: relevance, accuracy, precision, fidelity, resolution, currency, and so on. When students design the collection process, gather the data, analyze it, interpret it, and present it, they build the data literacy so essential today. But with instructional time limited, teachers sometimes shortcut the design/discovery and collection/assembly phases, at the cost of student comprehension. The ArcGIS School Bundle includes tools that can help students experience the full range of data work with nothing more than a web browser. Using multiple tools shows how technology can multiply (rather than just add) capacity.


Various technologies help educators and students design surveys to gather data (including photos or other attached files), but Survey123 adds the great power of geography: What is the location about which the user is gathering data? Then, what patterns differ between here and there? The data collector can rely on a mobile device’s GPS or choose the location on a map. However, K12 student data collection often needs to be done offline (out of wifi coverage, without consuming cell data; think “airplane mode”), and Survey123 does not currently include an easy, browser-only mechanism for acquiring and using a high resolution basemap offline ... but Collector does!


Survey123 and Collector


Survey123 and Collector are not identical in the data they handle and ways they do it, so a survey being planned for use with Collector needs careful attention to design. Collector handles well the most critical field types for surveys in schools: text fields, numbers (both integer and floating point), single choice (radio button or pull-down), file attachments, and point location. Any ArcGIS Org login with publishing privilege may use Survey123 to design a survey with these components, publish it (which creates an editable feature service offering attachments), set the layer permissions for syncing, create a map with that service as a layer, and share the layer and map with a group. Group members with Collector on their mobile devices can access the map, download a relevant basemap, and be ready to use the survey offline.


Afterward, the collected data can be a layer in any number of maps in ArcGIS . Single choice and numeric items can be labeled, inspected, classified, filtered, symbolized, and analyzed, while open text items provide essential context.


Important considerations for schools in this workflow include:

  • Only the survey creator needs to be a publisher and familiar with Survey123, but building the survey with students as a group process helps them see why and how choices get made
  • All survey users need the Collector app on their mobile device
  • The map with the editable feature service must be shared to a group in the ArcGIS  Org, and all survey users must use a login that is a member of that group
  • The survey form should focus on the basic question types noted above, and flow through all questions from beginning to end without “branching”, so “required” questions and question sequence need to be considered and designed carefully
  • Question formats, hints, and defaults need to be planned and tested carefully so each question operates as expected
  • Downloading the basemap in Collector requires attention to map extent and zoom scale, to optimize utility while minimizing bandwidth consumed and storage space required
  • Uploading from Collector the collected data needs planning to minimize network strain (lots of people uploading lots of points with lots of high res images can tax even strong networks)
  • Careful testing and piloting of the entire process (even going through a complete but very small practice activity with students) is advised before embarking on a large project. Best-laid plans can be tripped up by a tiny mistake or overlooked element.
  • For examples of exploring data skills and the power of geography, see the ArcGIS Skillbuilder (row46)


The process above can begin in Survey123 with just a browser on a laptop or tablet, for use in the Collector app on tablet or smartphone. Using ArcGIS Desktop to build a high quality data collection form for use with Collector is the focus of Teaching with GIS: Field Data Collection Using ArcGIS, an excellent course designed for educators, on Esri’s Training site. That course is free to anyone with a maintained Esri license, such as the ArcGIS School Bundle. The workflow in this blog is a more “minimalist” approach for the educator who wants to stay just within a web browser and mobile apps.


[[Update Sept.30, 2018: See also for more detailed descriptions, key updates, critical links, pre-built activities, and discussion.]]

[[Update April 28, 2020: The above shortURL 'survey123collector' has been redirected to This is a storymap that updates and improves on information from the original document.]]


GIS Today

Posted by geri_miller-esristaff Employee Jan 17, 2018

As educators, we are always faced with challenges on how we structure our curriculum activities to ensure that we are in line with modern industry practices. This is easier said than done—for one, there is likely no consensus on what a "modern geographic information system (GIS)" means; and two, it takes a tremendous amount of time to do curricula updates. As an instructor of a variety of courses on Web GIS, programming, and spatial analytics at Johns Hopkins University, I am relentlessly faced with course updates. However, my being a Solutions Engineer at Esri as well provides me with a unique perspective into the technology and helps me stay focused on what is important in the geospatial industry.


What will the next generation GIS curriculum look like? We may call it Web GIS or something else, but we will have to address the need for this forward-looking curriculum and embrace it as educators. GIS graduates are telling us this, as seen in this Esri Young Professionals Network (YPN) survey.


Below is an attempt to outline a few important topics amid the massive digital transformation we have experienced. For now, these topics are meant to serve as points of discussion—a means for self-assessment and reflection—to make us think about what we teach today and what tomorrow will bring. Yes, it is a bit IT heavy, but in today's GIS environment, IT is much needed. These topics come from feedback we received from students and graduates, who pointed out that we may not be placing a strong enough emphasis on the software and application development competency of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM).


  • GIS Today—GIS is not just a desktop technology anymore. We need to think about the trends that have influenced GIS evolution, such as cloud computing, mobile devices, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning and others. An important point to discuss here is the use of the technology to solve problems as well as facilitate access to information—anywhere, anytime, on any device.


  • GIS as a Service—The industry is shifting rapidly from specific software implementations to services in which the underlying technology is less visible–and probably less important—to the user of this technology. While the enterprise deployments providing some of these services will be important to understand, we probably need not focus on that in these early stages. Information products are fueled by services—ready-to-use services or those we can create—and there are different protocols and capabilities we can expose through these services, which would be important concepts to discuss. Understanding the notion of hosting, whether through the cloud or on-premises infrastructure, and demonstrating how GIS is web-oriented architecture (without necessarily calling it that) are key.


  • GIS in Your Apps—People use simple, focused apps to access information at home, and this same trend is now in the workplace. The industry is moving away from long development cycles to the use of apps that are easily configured, which allows organizations to stay current with technology. How people experience GIS through apps that are ready to use, configurable, native, web based, etc., also emphasizes the notion that information can be made available in many possible ways to those who need it. These apps are fueled by underlying maps, layers, and services provided by server technology, access to which is facilitated through a portal. Access, of course, could be dictated by identity and credentials.


  • GIS APIs and SDKs—GIS, as an information system, is built with SDKs and APIs. As GIS has become embedded into all aspects of business, the need for developers has grown. Understanding that GIS capabilities can be extended and having knowledge and experience with software libraries, APIs, and SDKs will afford students opportunities to grow into their careers. Graduates have expressed a strong desire and employers have expressed a strong need for this programming knowledge, whether it is Python, JavaScript, or any other language that emerges in the future.


  • GIS in Your IT—This also falls under the “software and application development” competency of the GTCM, specifically, to design a geospatial system architecture that responds to user needs, including desktop, server, and mobile applications. Understanding what it means to architect and manage a GIS, using an organization's infrastructure, whether in the cloud or on-premises, is a must. The focus is on the management of the networks, portals, map servers, web servers, databases, and data stores and on the understanding of how these components work together. Graduates entering today's workforce will be needing these skills.


  • GIS in the Field—Organizations are employing field GIS workflows, whether through crowdsourcing, citizen science, secure data collection, or maintenance. Content can be delivered in many ways in the field, such as via a public-facing, highly available app or by supporting an internal-facing, intermittently connected, field collection app. Teaching a variety of approaches is important.


  • More Types of Services—Other services provide additional capabilities—whether through client- and server-rendered services or by simply enabling users to access specific functionality, such as real-time GIS capabilities, to solve a problem.


  • GIS as Geospatial Data Science—Careers that include data science have exploded. Geospatial technology curricula ought to better mesh with data science/analytics curricula, infusing traditional geospatial technology topics with data science methods. This should include big data analytics platforms/databases, machine learning, Python and R data scientific libraries, business intelligence (BI) technologies, NoSQL databases, and mapping APIs. A program might promote these as data analytics, data engineering, machine learning, artificial intelligence, or in other ways.


  • And, of course, one should not neglect traditional topics, such as mapping and visualization, spatial analytics, and data management, being infused with the above.


Now how do we learn and how do we teach GIS? GIS is a changing field, and change is accelerating. Transformation is occurring not just in the curriculum but also in how we learn, the resources we use to teach, and pedagogic approaches. The way one learns GIS in class should probably equate with how one learns it in the workplace. We ought to be considering a shift in the traditional resources we've used so far in our classrooms; a single book that covers a whole class may not be enough anymore. Also, a book that was written six months ago may likely be outdated.


Modernized Curriculum = Shift in Resources Used and Pedagogy


Classes need to be agile, which means that writing and following cookbook exercises are not sustainable ways to teach rapidly changing technology. The Internet and the wealth of information available provide ways for users to find answers fast. Relying on recently updated online documentation, blogs, and other freely available web-based resources and channels is key.


An important concern persists, though—how do we know what information is good to include (i.e., truly current and worthy material)? There is a lot of information to weed out. "Less is more" is a generally appropriate approach; when in doubt, leave it out. A less desirable approach is a disclaimer of "keep in mind that . . . " or "use at your own discretion." In the workplace, students will also come across a staggering amount of information, so it is important to learn how to discern what is quality content (with guidance, if need be) and applicable to solving a problem.


At Johns Hopkins, we follow some of the above approaches to keep content current and foster a culture of collaboration and peer-to-peer interaction among students, which, in turn, encourages community building; this is particularly important for fully online courses. Challenging students to take more responsibility for their learning when solving a problem, is crucial.


There certainly are many other approaches to handling some of the challenges in teaching modern GIS – feel free to share yours! The AAG Annual Meeting and the Education Summit @ Esri User Conference (Esri UC) sessions on "Modern GIS Practices in Your Curriculum," could be great venues for continuing this discussion.

In this essay, I will share how to access, use, and analyze Lidar data from The National Map in ArcGIS Pro.  By extension it could be applied to Lidar data from other sites as well, but the USGS data portal NationalMap remains an excellent resource for spatial data, and why I focus on it here.  For videos of these procedures, go to the YouTube Channel geographyuberalles and search on Lidar.  For an entire book with exercises on using Lidar in ArcGIS Pro, see the Esri Press book from two of my favorite colleagues Kathryn Keranen and Bob Kolvoord. 

From a user perspective, in my view the National Map site is still a bit challenging, where the user encounters moments in the access and download process where it is not clear how to proceed.  However, (1) the site is slowly improving; (2) the site is worth investigating chiefly because of its wealth of data holdings:  It is simply too rich of a resource to ignore.  One challenging thing about using NationalMap is, like many other data portals, how to effectively narrow the search from the thousands of search results.  This in part reflects the open data movement that I have been writing about on the Spatial Reserves data blog, so this is a good problem to have, albeit still cumbersome in this portal.  Here are the procedures to access and download the Lidar data from the site:

  1. To begin:  Visit the National Map: > Select “Elevation” from this page.
  2. Select “Get Elevation Data” from the bottom of the Elevation page.  This is one of several quirks about the site – why isn’t this link in a more prominent position or in a bolder font?
  3. From the Data Elevation Products page left hand column:   Select “1 meter DEM.”
  4. Select the desired format.  Select “Show Availability”.   Zoom to the desired area using a variety of tools to do so.  In my example, I was interested in Lidar data for Grand Junction, in western Colorado.
  5. Note that the list of  available products will appear in the left hand column.  Lidar is provided in 10000 x 10000 meter tiles.  In my example, 108 products exist for the Grand Junction Lidar dataset.  Use “Footprint” to help you identify areas in which you need data–the footprints appear as helpful polygon outlines.  At this point, you could save your results as text or CSV, which I found to be quite handy.
  6. You can select the tiles needed one by one to add to your cart or select “Page” to select all items.  Select the Cart where you can download the tiles manually or select the “uGet Instructions” for details about downloading multiple files.  Your data will be delivered in a zip format right away, though Lidar files are large and may require some time to download.



The National Map interface as it appeared when I was selecting my desired area for Lidar data.

Unzip the LAS data for use in your chosen GIS package.  To bring the data into ArcGIS Pro, create a new blank project and name it.  Then, Go to Analysis > Tools > Create LAS dataset from your unzipped .las file, noting the projection (in this case, UTM) and other metadata.  Sometimes you can bring .las files directly into Pro without creating a LAS dataset, but with this NationalMap Lidar data, I found that I needed to create a LAS dataset first.

Then > Insert:  New Map > add your LAS dataset to the new map. Zoom in to see the lidar points.  View your Lidar data in different ways using the Appearance tab to see it as elevation, slope, aspect (shown below), and contours.  Use LAS dataset to raster to convert the Lidar data to a raster.  In a similar way, I added the World Hydro layer so I could see the watersheds in this area, and USA detailed streams for the rivers.


Aspect view generated from Lidar data in ArcGIS Pro.

There are many things you can do with your newly downloaded Lidar data:  Let’s explore just a few of those.  First, create a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) and a Digital Surface Model (DSM).  To do this, in your .lasd LAS dataset > LAS Filters > Filter to ground, and visualize the results, and then use LAS Dataset to Raster, using the Elevation as the value field.  Your resulting raster is your digital elevation model (DEM).  Next, Filter to first return, and then convert this to a raster:  This is your digital surface model (DSM).  After clicking on sections of each raster to compare them visually, go one step further and use the Raster Calculator to create a comparison raster:  Use the formula:  1streturn_raster – (subtract) the ground_raster.  The first return result is essentially showing the objects or features on the surface of the Earth–the difference between “bare earth” elevation and the “first return”–in other words, the buildings, trees, shrubs, and other things human built and natural.  Symbolize and classify this comparison surface to more fully understand your vegetation and structures.  In my study area, the difference between the DEM and the DSM was much more pronounced on the north (northeast, actually) facing slope, which is where the pinon and juniper trees are growing, as opposed to the barren south (southwest) facing slope which is underlain by Mancos Shale (shown below).


Comparison of DEM and DSM as a “ground cover” raster in ArcGIS Pro.


My photograph of the ridgeline, from just east of the study area, looking northwest.  Note the piñon and juniper ground cover on the northeast-facing slopes as opposed to the barren southwest facing slope.

Next, create a Hillshade from your ground raster (DEM) using the hillshade tool.   Next, create a slope map and an aspect map using tools of these respective names.  The easiest way to find the tools in Pro is just to perform a search.  The hillshade, slope, and aspect are now all separate raster files that you can work with later.  Once the tools are run, these are now saved as datasets inside your geodatabase as opposed to earlier—when you were simply visualizing your Lidar data as slope and aspect, you were not making separate data files.

Next, create contours, a vector file, from your ground raster (DEM), using the create contours tool.  Change the basemap to imagery to visualize the contours against a satellite image.  To create index contours, use the Contour with Barriers tool.  To do this, do not actually indicate a “barriers” layer but rather use the contour with barrier tool to achieve an “index” contour, as I did, shown below.  I used 5 for the contour interval and 25 (every fifth contour) for the index contour interval.  This results in a polyline feature class with a field called “type”.  This field receives the value of 2 for the index contours and 1 for all other contours.  Now, simply symbolize the lines as unique value on the type field, specifying a thicker line for the index contours (type 2) and a thinner line for all the other contours.


Next, convert your 2D map to a 3D scene using the Catalog pane.  If you wish, undock the 3D scene and drag it to the right side of your 2D map so that your 2D map and 3D scene are side by side.  Use View > Link Views to synchronize the two.  Experiment with changing the base map to topographic or terrain with labels.  Or, if your area is in the USA like mine is, use the Add Data > USA topographic > add the USGS topographic maps as another layer.  The topographic maps are at 1:24,000 scale in the most detailed view, and then 1:100,000 and 1:250,000 for smaller scales.



2D and 3D synced views of the contours symbolized with the Contours with Barriers tool in ArcGIS Pro. 

At this point, the sky’s the limit for you to conduct any other type of raster-based analysis, or combine it with vector analysis.  For example, you could run the profile tool to generate a profile graph of a drawn line (as I did, shown below) or an imported shapefile or line feature class, create a viewshed from your specified point(s), trace downstream from specific points, determine which areas in your study site have slopes over a certain degree, or use the Lidar and derived products in conjunction with vector layers to determine the optimal site for a wildfire observation tower or cache for firefighters.


Profile graph of the cyan polyline that I created from the Lidar data from the National Map in ArcGIS Pro.


Tracing downstream using the rasters derived from the lidar data in ArcGIS Pro.


Slopes over 40 degrees using the slope raster derived from the lidar data in ArcGIS Pro.

I hope these procedures will be helpful to you.


Stop Teaching GIS

Posted by DDiBiase-esristaff Employee Jan 10, 2018

Teach how to learn GIS instead.


That was a guiding principle as I recently redesigned the gateway course to the Penn State Online certificate and masters degree programs in GIS.


I began developing "Nature of Geographic Information" in 1998, at the outset of the Penn State Online program. I designed the course to serve adult students who sought to start or advance careers using GIS. The online course consisted of an open-access textbook ( and associated courseware for registered students. The courseware included ungraded and graded quizzes meant to ensure students' engagement with the text, as well as discussion forums and prescribed projects that required students to practice working with, and writing about, key concepts and technologies. 


Over 10,000 students have taken the course through the years, and most have expressed satisfaction with their experiences. Penn State colleagues and students helped me update the course incrementally. But the geospatial field has changed fundamentally since the late 1990s, and the Penn State Online program that the course was designed to introduce has evolved and expanded along with it. Equally important, our understanding of how people learn (and in particular, how they learn online) has advanced considerably. Nearly 20 years on, "Nature of Geographic Information" was overdue for a complete makeover. 


Although I began working with Esri full-time in 2011, I continued to lead online classes and workshops part-time for Penn State. I was thrilled and a bit overawed when program director Anthony Robinson invited me to create and lead a new version of the course. I accepted the challenge in the summer of 2016, and worked on the revision for over a year. The result, now known as "Making Maps that Matter with GIS," differs from its predecessor in scope, objectives, content, and user experience. Regarding content, the main difference is that I stopped assigning a textbook (though several texts are suggested options). It seems to me that today's next-generation GIS text is the World Wide Web itself.


The user experience in the new course is markedly different as well – for instructors as well as students. As the syllabus states, "students are expected to investigate assigned topics independently and to share findings within study groups to collaboratively construct understandings of these topics." The course introduction goes on to state that “The best employers in this field are looking for GIS pros who know how to discover, evaluate, and use information needed for the task at hand. This course is designed to help you strengthen those skills. The course establishes educational objectives, but does not spoon-feed the information needed to achieve them. We expect you to find and discuss the required information yourself, using the web, libraries, and your own personal experience." Instructors spend considerably more time evaluating student discussion posts and web mapping projects using rubrics like the one illustrated here, and proportionately less time updating exercise instructions and other course content.


Rubric used to score students’ contributions to discussions in Penn State’s GEOG 482: Making Maps that Matter with GIS.

Rubric used to score students’ contributions to discussions in Penn State’s GEOG 482: Making Maps that Matter with GIS.


The notion that people learn best when they actively construct knowledge in relation to what they already know is not a new idea, of course. Neither am I alone in believing that students - particularly adult students - should be challenged to take more responsibility for their own learning. For example, Karen Kemp, Professor of Practice at the University of Southern California and co-editor of the original NCGIA Core Curriculum in GIS, says "my goal in teaching now in our field is simply to teach students how to learn." Don Boyes of the University of Toronto reports that "Where it makes sense, I am encouraging students to learn how to find their own data … I provide some guidance about where to look for data and how to evaluate it, but I want them to be in charge of their own work as much as possible. " At Minnesota State University Moorhead, David Kramar “generally begin[s] the semester with some cookbook/step-by-step exercises that are intended to get the students familiar with the software interface and basic functionality. However, my ‘true’ labs require them to think critically, use the help and search functionality, and (frankly) figure it out for themselves (with my guidance and assistance as needed).”And in their 2017 International Journal of Geographical Information Science article "Critical GIS pedagogies beyond 'Week 10: Ethics", Sarah Elwood of the University of Washington and Matthew Wilson at the University of Kentucky state that "our approach to skill-building now involves students in learning new interfaces or platforms through individual and collaborative exploration without detailed step-by-step instructions, but with instructions for how to identify and productively engage online user forums, help files, etc."


There are many ways to get students more actively involved in learning. The right strategy depends on your educational objectives, your students’ ages and experience, and your instructional context. For instance, Robert Rose at the College of William and Mary directs a support unit that offers GIS classes to students in Geology, Environmental Studies, Government, and other undergraduate programs. They’ve adopted a "laddered approach" to GIS instruction that begins with scripted GIS activities, followed by "add-on" exercises with less detailed guidance, culminating in a final project in which students create “habitat suitability models for mythical beasts” with no step-by-step instructions. At San Diego Mesa College, Michele Kinzel uses “backwards design and constructivist approaches. I also reach out to multiple learning styles and combine individual hands-on GIS lessons with small group work and other types of exploration.” Boris Mericskay at Université Rennes2 developed an “inverted approach” in which he “poses a problem to students and leaves it to them to find the right tools and how to combine them.” “At the beginning the students are a little lost,” Boris admits, “but eventually they figure out how to apply GIS to solve the problem I posed.” Like Don Boyes and others, Bob Kolvoord of James Madison University has taken a “flipped classroom” approach, in which “students have various work they need to do to prepare for class and then class time is spent working on largely open-ended exercises to bolster their spatial thinking and GIS skills.” Some strategies involve more elaborate educational technology than others: Geographer Ashley Ward and GIS Librarian Amanda Henley at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill challenge small groups of students to select 8-10 socioeconomic variables from the Atlas of Human Development in Brazil, map the variables using ArcGIS Online, and then, prompted by patterns they discover in the maps, embark on self-guided explorations of on-ground landscapes using Google StreetView in a Liquid Galaxy immersive virtual reality display.


Don Boyes’s YouTube channel, where he shares self-produced video demonstrations to support his “flipped classroom” approach.

Don Boyes’s YouTube channel, where he shares self-produced video demonstrations to support his “flipped classroom” approach.


Requiring students to take greater responsibility for their learning isn’t easy, and it’s not for everyone. Vince DiNoto of Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky says that while he’s a "firm believer in less lecturing and more personal assistance,” he finds that “students directly out of high school really struggle with open ended case studies. They email me constantly, imploring me to tell them what I want.” Aaron Addison of Washington University in St. Louis reports that “I’ve tried the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘sage on the stage’ approach at the graduate student level, and to a lesser extent at the undergraduate level. My experience (unfortunately) is that it may work on a 1:1 basis, but does not appear to result in successful outcomes in a classroom setting with 15-20 students.” Bob Kolvoord relates that “on the whole, the flipped classroom approach works well, but it can be a challenge for students who aren’t motivated or that have poor task/time management skills.”


What about the students in my new course? A formal evaluation of student outcomes and preferences is underway, but anecdotal data is the best I have to share at this point. I found feedback from one student – an accomplished young woman who is new to GIS but previously earned a PhD in Marine Geochemistry – particularly enlightening. Early in the first offering of the course, she wrote me privately to express frustration. She wrote, "I (and probably most students) signed up to learn from an expert (and you are, according to your credentials, an expert!). But in the discussion forums, we’re learning from our peers, and most of us are hardly experts." She felt cheated. Rather than waiting to submit an anonymous evaluation at the end of the course, she asked permission to create a forum in which students could share critiques and suggestions about the course. Later in the course I took her advice, and invited all 53 students to post in a Course Commentary discussion. By this time, students had about six weeks of experience with the new course format. On reflection, the same student wrote this:


… after my first exchange with David a few weeks back about my frustrations with this class … I dug up an interesting article in Harvard Magazine1 about how interactive learning is much more successful than traditional (lecture) teaching and learning methods, although it meets with a lot of resistance. I was skeptical then, but the more time passes, the more I find this active learning class engaging, the more I enjoy what I’m learning, and the more I agree that, overall, this pedagogical method has been a success with me.


Other students complained that researching unfamiliar topics independently, and reading their peers’ many posts, was too time-consuming. Fellow instructor Adrienne Goldsberry and I streamlined that aspect of the course for the second offering, and fewer complaints about excessive workloads followed. However, it remains true that students who are unfamiliar with the subject matter, or who prefer their accustomed roles as consumers of instructor-produced content, are uncomfortable with the level of responsibility that the course demands.


At this point it should be clear that the call to action in the title of this short article is purposefully provocative. Naturally, every college and university educator wants to help students learn to discover, evaluate, apply, and share knowledge independently and in groups. Even so, I believe it’s healthy for GIS educators to ask ourselves frankly whether we give our students enough responsibility for their own learning. The question and answer has been transformative for me.


1 Lambert, Craig (2012). Twilight of the Lecture. Harvard Magazine

My colleague Ridge Waddell and I are beginning to work with The School for International Training (, and as a part of that effort, we created this presentation focused on four key tools that the university is most interested to begin their GIS work in.  The University is interested in using the tools as key components of their African Americans Living Abroad Research and Education Program.  The tools featured in our presentation are ArcGIS (starting with ArcGIS Online), web mapping applications including story maps, Operations Dashboard, and Survey123.  Because we include many links in this presentation to tutorials and live interactive web maps, I wanted to share it with the broader community and I hope you find it useful for your own work in education and beyond. 

"How can my class collaborate in ArcGIS Online?" This is an inspiringly frequent question. The good news is that there are several key ways, but they need careful attention to process to work well.


The number one wrong expectation by ArcGIS Online novices is that the basic Map Viewer works just like a "collaborative word processor," with many people editing a single document at once. It doesn't, for good reason. So, just know that, if ten users log in and open the same map, each is working on his/her own version of that map, and saving happens only when a given user clicks "save," and saves a user-specific document in that user's contents. Now, here's how good collaboration can happen.


[1] Users can share documents they have created. OK, sharing is not the same as collaborating, unless thought of in sequential terms. User A can create a map and share with her Org, and/or Group(s) in the Org, and/or the Public. Others can use that as a starting point for their own custom work. (Caution: users planning to save modifications should keep good metadata.)


[2] "Ownership of an item" can be reassigned from one user to another, by an Org admin (or "custom helper" with the privilege to reassign). The admin can go into A's contents, and reassign ownership to B, and so on. (Caution: it passes in the condition last saved, so be sure all saving is completed, including metadata updates, and the current owner has closed the doc before reassigning.)

[2.1] A "shared public login" (Row 3 of allows users not in an Org to simulate the process above, but extreme caution and self-control must be exercised here, since everyone using the login has equal access to all items at all times. Strictly following a sequence (A starts a map, makes changes, saves it, then closes it; B opens the map, makes changes, saves it, then closes it; more users follow B's strict sequence) in which only one user at a time has the map open, and it is saved and exited before another person opens it, can work. (Having each user quit their browser immediately after saving will ensure there is no "residual version." Alert: Be sure to update and save the metadata before considering it ready to be passed to another user.)


[3] Users in an Org can create and share data layers as components for others to use in building their own map. User A can make a layer of neighborhood parks, B can do stores, C can do bus stops and bike racks, and so on, for sharing with the Group/Org/Public. Each user can then create their own maps. (Alert: If the layer owner changes the layer, those changes will be visible in every map using the layer, which can be in ways other map creator/s might not anticipate.)

[3.1] Even Map Note layers can be shared this way, if the creator of a given layer accesses the layer properties while in the map, and chooses "Save the layer," and then navigates to "My Content" and shares the layer with the Group/Org/Public. (In a "shared public account," since everyone is logged in as the same user, formal sharing is not required. See this document for a step-by-step process description.) Map Note layers shared this way are a "feature collection" (essentially "ad hoc geolocated graphics, each with custom attributes") and not a true "hosted feature service," so no filtering is possible.


[4] Users can collaborate on generating data, such as field data collection activities, via Survey123 or Collector creations. Here, process leaders can decide to share with only certain people (Group or Org) or open it up to the world. Data contributors in this process work according to the parameters set by the creator. This is a hugely powerful opportunity (explore the map app in Fun with GIS 223), which demands much forethought to capture the proper content easily, and to imagine all the conditions under which someone might contribute. The "farther" the contributor is from the collection instrument designer, the greater the chance for misperceptions, hiccups, and errors.

[4.1] Survey123 creators can also share the permission to analyze results from within the Survey123 dashboard.

[4.2] Survey123 creators can even share an entire survey form with someone else in the Org by doing "SAVE AS" in design, then having the admin reassign ownership of the newly created folder and contents.

[4.3] Collector requires an Org login and membership in a group which includes the specific Collector map.


[5] Multiple people can collaborate on a Story Map if, for instance, the group plans out a project, and each person or sub-group is responsible for some of the "raw materials" to be used in different portions of the content, and someone is responsible for pulling the disparate creations into a tidy and sensible whole. For instance, users A,B,C,D,E can collaborate if A,B,C,D each generate independent components and E assembles the final product. (In this case A,B,C,D need to set appropriate sharing, and recognize that any changes made in their contents will appear in E's final product.)


ArcGIS Online software evolves periodically, and collaboration options may change in the future. Be sure to examine the documentation for options. But, for now, focus on the powerful options above. Collaboration is possible, but groups must think through the workflow carefully, understand what is technically possible, and focus on what is good practice under a given situation. Emphasize the steps that will lead to a good result, not necessarily doing everything that is technically possible.

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