How do you facilitate collaboration in ArcGIS Online with users outside of your institution?

05-21-2021 07:35 AM
Occasional Contributor III
As the use of ArcGIS Online continues to grow, occurrences where members of our ArcGIS Online organization need to collaborate with members of other institutions' ArcGIS Online organizations are also increasing. Perhaps it is an outside person involved in a service learning project that needs to collaborate with a group of students, or researchers participating in a multi-institutional project, or external participants in a GIS workshop, or students from around the world joining a field project for the summer, and so on... 
How are you supporting such use cases at your institution? 
In ArcGIS Online, users have always been able to add people from other ArcGIS Online organizations to groups. That is a good solution for sharing content with collaborators when you want to keep access restricted. It does not, however, enable the external members to collaborate on the content, say edit a Web Map or author a StoryMap. It is a view-only collaboration. 
The recent addition of Partnered Collaborations in ArcGIS Online addresses that shortcoming by making it possible to add users from a partner ArcGIS Online organization to a Shared Update group. In which case collaborators can now participate in tasks like co-designing a Web Map or co-authoring a StoryMap.
Unlike the first case, however, setting up a Partnered Collaboration requires an ArcGIS Online Administrator be involved. That doesn't scale well. As the interest in cross-organization collaboration increases, that means more and more work for the Administrators :( 
Furthermore, there is a limit of 10 Partnered Collaborations for an ArcGIS Online organization. In the last pre-pandemic year, we supported external collaborations with users from 57 different organizations, so Partnered Collaborations wouldn't have scaled-up sufficiently for us in that way either :(
So what are other ways to facilitate collaboration in ArcGIS Online with external colleagues? 
Our current solution is to require external collaborators to have affiliate accounts on our Single-Sign-On (SSO) system, so they can access our ArcGIS Online instance. Many higher-ed institutions support the use of affiliate accounts. After all, the need for multi-institution collaboration is not a concept new with ArcGIS Online.
(If you aren't sure if affiliate accounts are supported at your institution, then a good place to start is with the folks who helped set up SAML for your ArcGIS Online organization. Or, you can do a quick web search for "<your institution> identity and access management single-sign-on affiliate", and you will likely find a good starting point for who to talk to on your campus.)
We began using this solution as soon as we enabled SAML on our ArcGIS Online instance, and we've found it to offer a number of key advantages in supporting cross-institutional collaborations:
  • You are leveraging established practices at your institution.
  • There is no limit on how many different organizations external collaborators might come from.
  • No effort is required from the ArcGIS Online Administrator (other than the initial configuration of SAML to authorize affiliate accounts.)
  • Those directly involved in (or with an understanding of) the collaboration are responsible for managing the affiliate's access to ArcGIS Online. (Not the ArcGIS Online Administrator, who likely has no idea who the user is, or who their external collaborators are, or for how long the collaboration needs to last.)
Are others using affiliate accounts to facilitate cross-institutional collaboration in ArcGIS Online? Have you found other alternatives that work well?
2 Replies
Occasional Contributor II

Have you investigated using ArcGIS Hub premium with initiatives built in your AGOL and followers/collaborators in Hub?  That's how our Org is beginning to work with outside entities on common projects.

Side benefit:  Since Hub Premium is essentially another AGOL Org, the AGOL to AGOL or AGOL to ArcGIS Enterprise collaboration tools work too.


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Occasional Contributor III

@ToddMetzler  yes, Hub has been a great fit for a few of our large, more complex collaborations involving external participants, especially collaborations with a need to support open data services or requiring a web site presence. However, Hub has a very steep learning curve and its wealth of functionality has generally proven to be overkill for users interested in simple collaborations.

For the use cases I outlined above, our users are looking for simple ways to collaborate with external folks, simpler than Hub at least. Their main goal is typically limited to sharing content via ArcGIS Online with collaborators both within and outside of our organization, and for read-only or read-write collaboration. Regular and Shared Update groups have been a good match for such use cases, though with the potential pain point I touched on in in my post: how to easily involve external collaborators.

Furthermore, such users have typically already formed their "community", prior to needing to incorporate ArcGIS Online into it. They are already collaborating in Google or Microsoft Productivity apps, cloud storage (DropBox/Google Drive/Box/OneDrive), Canvas/Blackboard courses, etc.; all of which easily and intuitively support user-managed collaboration.

While GIS can be a key component in various steps of the research lifecycle, collaboration is what sites at the core of the propose, collect, process, analyze, share, preserve, and re-use cycle. And, ArcGIS Online's support for collaboration, while improving, still feels like it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to fitting users' needs and expectations.

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