ArcGIS Online WebMaps and MapApps


For those that might be new to GIS, ArcGIS is the default enterprise GIS solution. This isn’t a great comparison, but it is similar to Microsoft in the 1990s but less evil and with no Apple. The company behind ArcGIS is ESRI. They provide a variety of geospatial products and services; ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Server, ArcGIS Online, etc. All of them do geospatial analysis, just differently. ArcGIS desktop is going to be what someone with “Geospatial Analyst” in their job title will be using on most days in a business setting. ArcGIS Server, as the name implies, is about supplying data to large organizations via a server. ArcGIS Online is geared to sharing maps through web maps and web apps.

Web Map vs. Map App

Before we go any further, let’s get some terminology out of the way. Using ArcGIS Online, you can build either a web map or a map app. A Web map, for our purposes, is going to be something you’re probably going to embed into your own website. It might have a zoom feature and a legend, but it won’t have too many bells and whistles. A map app by contrast is more like a stand alone web application that exists as a single page with its own url address. Think of it as its own website. ArcGIS Online has both a gallery of Map App themes to choose from and a Map App builder. If you’re familiar WordPress. It is almost like WordPress for maps. There are widgets for adding a measuring button, a search tab to find locations, image analysis, feature editing, and various other options.

Comparison to Cartodb, Mapbox, etc.

ArcGIS Online and the other online map services all try to be the service you use to easily embed maps in your webpage or share urls to your map on their site. ArcGIS online products have the advantage of the ESRI name, established support, and being one part of a wider enterprise solution.

For the purpose of this blog post (and as refresher before going to a GIS web development hackathon) I built a map using ArcGIS online, which is below. It was built with a small subset of the data I’m using for a map on Houston recreational paddling experiences. I also turned that map into a Map App.

The map app can be found at this link, which will open another tab on your browser with a full page map app. In addition to opening up full screen, the map app makes it possible to turn layers on and off, measure distance, get directions from your location to boat launches on the map, and brings the legend up as an option.

My general impression was if all I needed was a really quick and simple map that only included a basemap and a few points, I’d probably go with Mapbox. The upload and selection of data is a little slower with ArcGIS Online. Plus, there are more buttons to push between start and finish. For very complicated maps, I suspect ArcGIS online would likely be what I’d use, because I could more easily build the map in desktop mode, where I’m not slowed by internet service and browser constraints, and then transition it online.

One disappointment I did have with ArcGIS online was the limited data types you were allowed to upload to your online map. In addition to limited data types, shape files couldn’t be above a certain size or number of features. I ended up having to dissolve every shapefile I uploaded, resulting in lost of attribute information I would have liked to be included in the map. Specifically, the names of small stream segments and stream environmental health information. As this was a quick trial map, I didn’t worry too much about it, but in the future I’ll likely have to use python to split shapefiles into many shapfiles by attribute criteria and then load up a larger total number of shapefiles. Doing it by hand would be too slower and annoying.   EDITED: It turns out I could upload it directly. I just needed to do it as a feature service instead of shape files. Thanks to Nick for the correction. 

The best thing ArcGIS Online has going for it for putting very easy to moderate complexity maps on the web is the pre-built MapApp themes. Their WebApp gallery has a portfolio of some of standard themes and others that people have built. If you’re a full blown web developer you might choose to use leaflet.js and more general javascript to build these types of polished feature rich map applications. If you don’t know what javascript is, ArcGIS Online Web App builder might be your best option.

EDIT: For more information on ArcGIS online development tools, check out this  more recent post.


Click the double arrow in the upper left corner << to see the map legend. If you click the image in the lower left corner, the basemap will change to satellite imagery. Impaired segments are those with environmental issues according to the TCEQ or Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

link to the map above that opens in a new tab

link to full screen map app with additional features like legend, turning layers on and off, multiple basemap options, attribute table views, lat/long at mouse position, and directions.

2 thoughts on “ArcGIS Online WebMaps and MapApps

  • good article Jason – one note, you can avoid having to limit the number of features in a shapefile by publishing the shapefile as a feature service – this is different than adding the shapefile to the map, you add it as content in ArcGIS Online – there is no limit to the number of features, I have uploaded shapefiles with over 400,000 parcels into ArcFIS Online with no problems

    here is a help doc about it

    enjoy your blog – keep writing 🙂

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