What are the 10 most important GIS skills to nurture in ArcGIS Online?

07-16-2021 03:37 PM
Esri Frequent Contributor
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In high school, my friend and I had ongoing debates about the "Top 10 coolest bands of all time."  We never could win each other to "our side" of the argument, but it was fun to discuss anyway.  Nowadays, perhaps because of the flood of information, because of time constraints and the need for concise pieces of information, and because it offers a place for anyone to have a voice, the web is full of Top 10 lists.  These include those on the "Top 10 places to visit in <fill in your state or country> before you die", the "Top 10 most influential people in history", and on and on.  These lists are often subjective, sometimes fun to read, sometimes can be informative, but can often serve as effective "conversation starters" in class in debate or in other instructional scenarios. 

In today's complex and rapidly changing education and technology environment, where educators need to focus on "what really matters", such a Top 10 GIS based skills list could be valuable.  Therefore, I ask, you, the reader, to think about:  "What are the 10 most important skills to nurture and develop for success in using ArcGIS Online?" 

Let me reassure you here at the outset that I do not believe that these are the only type of skills that teaching with GIS fosters.  Indeed, my colleagues and I have written extensively about the inquiry, communication, and other skills fostered by working with spatial data and geotechnologies in this blog, in videos, and in journal articles, and elsewhere.  Furthermore, since GIS instruction always is about real issues in real contexts, whether it is natural hazards, species richness, soils or landforms, climate and weather, population change and demographics, social justice, or other key 21st Century issues, students are gaining content knowledge in a wide array of disciplines when they are using GIS in instruction.  In addition, I believe that GIS offers spatial thinking, systems thinking, holistic thinking, and other perspectives far beyond skills and content knowledge.  See my 3-legged stool of geoliteracy for more.  And we could certainly talk about the broader skills in managing projects, working with data types, formats, and delivery mechanisms (portals, Hubs; streaming vs. downloading), and learning attitudes such as embracing change, asking questions, and so on.   But for this essay, let's focus on core GIS skills.   

While any "Top 10" list is rightly open to debate, and I welcome that debate in the comments to this essay, I would argue that if you and your students master these 10 skills, you can do virtually anything in this exciting and powerful platform!  Do I really mean anything?  Yes, because I believe teaching your students these skills is like teaching them "how to fish"--they develop the perspectives and problem-solving abilities that they can transfer to different issues and regions.  This education community blog is filled with examples of students doing amazing things, from primary to secondary to university (read more here and here) and beyond. 

The Top 10 GIS Skills

JosephKerski_1-1627412649580.png(1)  Working with Maps and Layers:  Searching for, opening, and saving maps, basemaps, layers, and 3D scenes; managing content, and creating and using metadata.

document-checklist-48.jpg(2)  Creating Map Content:   Creating feature services, spreadsheets, multimedia, and other content, and making maps from that content.

JosephKerski_2-1627412698679.png (3)  Map Navigation:  Changing scale and map projection, finding locations and places, measuring, bookmarking, and selecting.  

JosephKerski_3-1627412744172.png(4)  Symbology:  Changing symbology (style), classifying, clustering, filtering, rendering imagery.

JosephKerski_4-1627412811891.png (5)  Attributes:  Working with tabular data:  Selecting, creating field and tables, sorting, summarizing, and creating and using popups.

JosephKerski_5-1627412881970.png  (6)  Field data:  Collecting and mapping field data from field data collection apps (such as Survey123 and iNaturalist), GPS and fitness apps, geotagged photographs, and from analog methods (such as notes on a clipboard!). 

JosephKerski_7-1627412999647.png (7) Drawing and Sketching:  Configuring popups and other map objects (map notes in Classic Map Viewer, Sketch layers in New Map Viewer).

JosephKerski_6-1627412937385.png (8)  Creating expressions (in Arcade) and using them in filtering, labeling, and symbolizing. 

JosephKerski_8-1627413044662.png(9) Creating web mapping applications including story maps, infographics, and dashboards.

JosephKerski_9-1627413083814.png(10) Performing analysis: Proximity, summarizing, map overlay, map algebra, routing, joining, spatial statistical tools, and more.

This list can be used to create assessment tools if you are teaching a course or a workshop.  It could also be used as a pre-test for a workshop you are planning--what are attendees' skills before they begin?  It could be compared to a post-workshop evaluation using a variety of assessment instruments.  I like using ArcGIS Story Maps, for example, as content that I can evaluate technically and also to make sure students understand the concept (such as tsunamis or population change).  I can assess the maps online and also assess a 5-minute  live or recorded oral presentation that the students give as they walk their peers and me through their story map.

While my essay title is focused on "ArcGIS Online", I contend that many of these skills are important in using other GIS software such as ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Urban, ArcGIS Insights, Business Analyst Web, and even non-Esri GIS software.   But those other software sets involve developing some unique skills as well, such as understanding how to bring data from a GIS to a statistical package and back, for example, using the R Bridge in ArcGIS Pro. 

Certainly there are "honorable mentions" that I would like to include in this list, such as (1) developing coding skills in JavaScript and Python which powers the web maps, and (2) editing point, line, and polygon mapped features.  But I cut myself off at 10 !

Other GIS skill lists are worth examining:   My colleagues and I in the T3G program organized the core elements of GIS into:  Create geographic data, analyze data, and visualize data.   USC, for example, groups the skills into data collection and evaluation, visualization, analysis, and modeling.   I also like this list from Oregon State University for its nudge about understanding workflows and from GIS Lounge for its focus on data.  And I have long been a proponent of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model from the GeoTech Center that begins with personal competencies:  "Are you organized?  Are you ethical?  Can you work with data?"  

What skills, in your judgement, are most important in the above list?   What skills would you include in such a list?  Which of these 10 skills apply to using other tools, such as ArcGIS Pro?  What skills do you think might decrease or increase in importance as we move forward in this current decade?  


I look forward to your comments below!  

New Contributor

Data sharing - deciding what format is accessible and usable by your audience and collaborators 

Data integration - understanding standards, schemas, and strategies to help different people’s data talk to each other, esp across political and organizational boundaries.  

Esri Frequent Contributor

Indeed !  Thanks for reading and for your comment!

Agreed - these are valuable skills as well.

--Joseph Kerski

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.