Four-Step Process to Make a Simple Story Map

Blog Post created by sboden-esristaff Employee on Apr 9, 2013

Updated February 11, 2020


Story maps are popular. Their visual, interactive nature makes them a great medium to share interesting information about a place or topic and spark discussion on real-world issues. To make a classic story map, you start with a web map. There are lots of ways to make a web map and just as many ways to make a story map.


In fact, if you're using the new ArcGIS StoryMaps, you may or may not use a web map—that choice is up to the storyteller. This post shows a simple process to make a classic story map.

The KISS principle is my preferred approach whenever possible; overcomplicating things makes it hard to get stuff done. I found a simple way to make a web map. Here's a simple four-step process to craft a story map.

It goes like this:

  1. Choose your story topic.
  2. Plan and execute your data strategy.
  3. Create a web map.
  4. Share the web map as a story map.


Step 1: Choose Your Story Topic

A story communicates something. Being concise is one key to effective communication, so for a story map, it's essential to choose a discrete topic and useful to narrow the topic down to a core message. Learning a new skill is often easier (and more fun) when you practice with a project that's personally interesting. Once you've mastered the skill, you can apply it to work projects.

Visitors to the Esri Training Center in Redlands get a printed piece listing local restaurants (with a map of course). That piece inspires an interesting story map topic (to me). The core message (inspired by the 3/50 project) is, despite being a fairly small town, Redlands has an impressive selection of local dining options.

  • If you need help choosing a topic, the Story Map Gallery is a great source for inspiration.


Step 2: Plan and Execute Your Data Strategy

"Data strategy" may sound complicated, but all it means is decide which layers and attributes to include. It's important to choose only the most relevant layers—overloading a map with extraneous data muddies your story (remember, be concise). For this practice project:

  • Layers: Restaurant locations and a basemap for context are all that's needed.
  • Attributes: Restaurant name, address, description, and a web page URL.
  • Basemap: One of the free high-quality ArcGIS Online basemaps will work great.

To execute the strategy, assemble the data and choose a geographic data format. The format depends on the tools at your disposal.

  • If you use ArcGIS Pro or ArcMap and ArcGIS Enterprise, you can author and publish GIS services that are built from feature classes, imagery, or other geographic data. The advantage of using a service is that, as the underlying data changes, updating a web map is easy (you just republish the service, then refresh the map).
  • If you don't have access to tools to create a service, you can use the easy-button method: add data stored in shapefiles, text files, CSV files, or GPX files to the ArcGIS Online map viewer. You can also manually draw features in the map viewer.

Since this example showcases only 14 restaurants, it's easy to create point features to represent the restaurants. I'll just create a shapefile, then add it to the map viewer (here's another useful learning strategy: practice with manageable datasets; otherwise, you risk getting derailed by data challenges).

  • When creating a shapefile for use in a web map, select the WGS 1984 geographic coordinate system and the Web Mercator Auxiliary Sphere projected coordinate system, the same coordinate systems used by commonly available basemaps. This will improve web map performance.
  • The map viewer requires that shapefiles be zipped (for small datasets that don't have detailed geometry, just zip the DBF, SHP, SHX, and PRJ files).


Step 3: Create a Web Map

When the data is ready, add it to the map viewer to create a web map.

  • Go to and sign in to your ArcGIS Online organizational account or public account.
  • Click Map at the top of the window.
  • Zoom to the area of interest and choose a desired basemap from the gallery.
  • Click Add > Layer from File. Browse to the data file and add it. Depending on your data, you may choose to use generalized features or keep the original features. For a small number of simple points, keep the original features.

You can display point features on the map with a single symbol, as a heat map, or with unique symbols based on an attribute value.



  • For this practice story map, each restaurant should have a unique symbol. I can easily accomplish this by selecting the Unique symbols drawing style, then choosing the attribute to show.
  • For the attribute, I'll choose Name and then click the Options button to select the symbol colors, shape, and size.
  • After making the selections, click OK in the Options pane, then Done in the Change Style pane. If you want to adjust the symbology later, in the Contents pane mouse over the layer name, click the small down-facing arrow next to it, then click Change Style.
  • If the story map will include a legend, make sure your layer names are easily understood. You can rename a layer in the Contents pane by clicking its down arrow, then clicking Rename.

With the symbols configured, it's time to configure the pop-ups. When you click a feature on the map, you see a pop-up window with a default display of attributes. You can easily change the defaults to suit your story map needs.

  • In the Contents pane, click the layer down arrow, then click Configure Pop-up. In the Configure Pop-up pane, the pop-up title is already set to the Name attribute, which is good. To customize the pop-up contents, in the Display drop-down list, choose "A custom attribute display," then click Configure.




  • In the Custom Attribute Display dialog box, click the Add Field Name [+] button and choose the attributes you want shown in the pop-up. You can order and format them as desired.




A nice feature is the ability to link an attribute to a web page. In this example, there's an attribute that stores URLs. I can use the custom attribute functionality to display the same link text in all the pop-ups instead of individual (and long) URL strings. Here's how:

  • In the dialog box, select the attribute that contains URLs, then click the Create Link button. In the Link Properties dialog box, select and drag the attribute up to the URL field. Enter link text (e.g., "View web page") in the Description field. Click Set, then OK.
  • After configuring the pop-up content the way you like, save your pop-up changes, then save the web map. You will be prompted to enter a title, tags, and summary. This information will be propagated to the story map, so give it some thought.


Step 4: Share the Web Map as a Story Map

Now you have the story map foundation. ArcGIS Online provides a collection of web application templates (including classic story map templates). Using a template simplifies the work. To use a template, you have to share your web map.

  • In the map viewer, click Share.
    • If you have an ArcGIS Online public account, you need to share with everyone. If you're using an ArcGIS Online organizational account (or free trial) and you have permissions to share content, you can share the map with everyone or with an existing group.
  • Click Make a Web Application.
  • Browse through the available templates. You can preview how your web map will look in different templates by clicking the down arrow next to Publish and clicking Preview.
    • If you like a template layout overall but want to make some changes to enhance your story map, you can download the template and use the readme file instructions to configure the changes. You will need access to a web server (and some basic HTML and JavaScript skills).
  • If you like a template as-is, click Publish.

In just a short amount of time, I have a link to a simple story map I can share with the world. More importantly, I've developed skills I can use in the future to create story maps on other topics.



Telling stories has always been an essential way humans communicate and share knowledge. A story told through an accessible GIS map lens is a new way to communicate, and a powerful medium to share geographic knowledge that informs and influences.


Related post: Commonsense Tips for Story Map Data


Want to learn more tips, techniques, and best practices to make story maps AND get hands-on practice? Check out Creating Story Maps with ArcGIS.