Skip to main content

A Guide to ArcGIS Online Content

ArcGIS Online is great for creating and sharing maps. But did you know that there is a lot of data on ArcGIS Online that can be readily incorporated into your map?

There is a surprising amount of ever-growing content on ArcGIS Online. ArcGIS Online is no longer just the place to create a mashup map with Esri created basemaps but a source for a wide range of data produced by partners and ArcGIS users. There is, in fact, so much data out there that it is hard to keep track of it all. All of this data can also make it difficult to find what you are looking for.

Content categories in ArcGIS Online are just some of the pieces in building your online repetoire of maps and data.


For those of you who are regular users of ArcGIS Online, you will know that there are a variety of basemaps to choose from when building your Web map. Within ArcGIS Online, if you select “Basemap” from the menu at the top left of your screen, you will have a selection of 9 basemaps to choose from.

The usual selection of basemaps are only the tip of the content iceberg

But did you know that there are more than just these to choose from? To find other basemaps that might be more suitable to your Web mapping project, go to Esri’s Living Atlas and select “Basemaps” from the menu on the left-hand side of the screen. This will provide you not only with the 9 basemaps that are directly available from ArcGIS Online but close to an additional 70 different options. As these basemaps were created by partners, users and Esri from all over hte world, some may only cover a small, localized area that might not match what you are looking for. However, eighteen of these basemaps are produced by Esri and span the entire globe. Two other basemaps have an Arctic focus and are displayed with the polar projection.

Arctic Imagery Basemap: That Russian flag is around here somewhere.

Any of these basemaps can be included in any Web map or in your desktop map document. Selecting the basemap from the Living Atlas page will take you to a page that displays the map and its metadata. Scroll down the page and you’ll have the option of opening the map in an ArcGIS Online map viewer or in ArcGIS for Desktop.

Online or Desktop? It's up to you.


Imagery, of course, is often used as a basemap against which to display thematic data. It is a quick and easy way to visualize the geography and eliminates the need for multiple vector layers. But the imagery collection in the Living Atlas is more than just a collection of pretty pictures against which users can display their thematic data. It is also a source of valuable data in its own right.

The imagery content in ArcGIS Online can be broken down into one of 5 categories:

a) Basemaps Imagery spans the world and is constantly being updated with contributions from community maps participants and commercial providers. This not only includes the imagery basemap but also other collections such as Landsat. These basemaps are high performance products built to display at multiple scales and are uniformly colour balanced.  Additional premium products available through the ArcGIS Marketplace include imagery from such providers as DigitalGlobe and RapidEye.

b) Elevation Data: Esri’s World Elevation Services provides online access to collections of multi-resolution, multi-scale digital terrain models. A more complete listing of the elevation services along with some of the tools that can be used to analyze and process them are available in the Elevation Layers Group on ArcGIS Online. Some of these tools are still in beta and will need a connection to the ArcGIS Elevation Service in ArcGIS for Desktop in order to function.

The multi-directional hillshade base map

c) Multi-spectral imagery has had little or no processing applied to it, thereby allowing analytics to be performed on it. It is dynamically mosaicked and processed on-the-fly. Included in this collection is Landsat 8 imagery, covering the entire globe and updated on a daily basis, weather permitting. Other services are available on a subscription basis, including 8 band, 11 bit imagery from DigitalGlobe and 5 band, 16 bit imagery from RapidEye.

Landsat 8 Imagery

d) Event imagery includes imagery of specific locations at specific times to highlight changes in the environment as a result of natural or man-made events. These might include before and after images of areas affected by tornadoes, hurricanes or tsunamis.

e) Though not usually considered as imagery, Historical Maps are rasterized versions of old maps. The Living Atlas has a collection of more than 70 such maps, including one of North America dating from 1733, geo-referenced and projected so as to be compatible with the standard Web Mercator Auxiliary projection used in ArcGIS Online.

Henry Popple's 1733 map of North America: the office is here . . . somewhere.

Demographics & Lifestyle

Esri has a host of demographic data available for Canada and the rest of the world. Data for Canada includes basic demographic data such as age, marital status and occupation but also spending data measured on about 300 attributes including clothing, education, food and transportation. Esri has partnered with Environics to provide this detailed data in a geographically useable format. Environics classifies Canadians by their lifestyle into 65 different categories. This powerful data is particularly useful for businesses looking to understand where their customers are and how they live. This data is only available through Esri’s Business Analyst product suite and can be used via ArcGIS for Desktop or ArcGIS Online.

A couple of Environics' social profiles.

Also available are more than 1.5 million business listings that include industry, number of employees and sales.

Some of the many business listings in Business Analyst.

Esri also has very detailed demographic and lifestyle data for the United States. For other countries, Esri provides around 100 demographic variables and 20 different spending variables. To see what data is offered for which country, go to the Esri Demographics Global Coverage map.

All of the demographic data can be consumed via maps, infographics, reports or geographic data enrichment.

Landscape Analysis

This is a section of content that might be new to most people but it contains data that all of us are familiar with. They are layers about our natural and man-made environments and are evaluated, processed, managed and maintained by Esri. These layers are streaming, authoritative-source data that are useful for bio-geographic analysis, natural resource management, land use planning and conservation. These ready-to-use layers are designed to save users time, money and effort.

Landscape layer categories.

Esri evaluates each layer that is to be included in the collection and resolves any errors or inconsistencies these layers might have. Layers may be available in either raster or vector format, depending on the content.

Currently there are about 150 such layers for the U.S. and international coverage is expanding, starting with Africa. International layers include moisture potential, land cover, climate change, temperature, precipitation, biomass and infant mortality.  Both U.S. and international landscape layers can be found in the Landscape Layers group on ArcGIS Online. You must have an ArcGIS Online subscription account in order to access them.

Within this group are layers, geoprocessing tools, Web maps and sample apps. Some of the tools may still be in development and may require you to connect to an Esri hosted service.

Urban Systems

In 2013, Esri launched a new initiative called the Urban Observatory. It is an interactive, online tool that allows users to compare data from cities around the world. Maps of selected cities are displayed side-by-side at the same scale and showing the same data. Users can select the cities that they want to see and the themes that they want to compare them on. Canadian content to date is limited to Victoria, BC but more cities will be included in the near future.

Urban Observatory: Compare and contrast cities around the world.

There are 25 themes on which to compare cities, including traffic, population density, open space and commercial and industrial areas, among others. To see your city's content up on the Urban Observatory contact or process your own data using the tools provided on ArcGIS Online.

The data layers that are used in the Urban Observatory are also available to users of ArcGIS Online by going to the Living Atlas and selecting the Urban Systems category.

Another aspect of urban systems is visualizing the built environment which is best done in three dimensions. Esri is working on building a library of 3D cities that can be viewed in a City Engine Web Viewer.  There are a limited number of cities in the collection – Vancouver, BC being one of them – but that is expected to expand as more cities participate.

Vancouver, BC in 3D on a grey day . . . just like the real thing

Geocoding & Routing

Geocoding is such an integral part of mapping online that most of us don’t even think about it, even as we use it. If you type an address or a place name into the search box of ArcGIS Online you are performing a type of geocoding. More specifically, we think of geocoding as a way of finding the x and y coordinates of an address. With ArcGIS, this can be accomplished either online or on-premise (either user-built or employing StreetMap Premium). The online version covers the entire globe and provides precise address level geocoding for 106 countries and place level geocoding for the rest of the world. The online geocoder also has the advantage that you only pay for the geocoding that you do.

As well as geocoding, Esri also provides networking analysis capabilities. This network analysis can be simple point-to-point routing or complex routing for multiple vehicles and destinations. These solvers can be both time and traffic aware and can support trucking, weight and height restrictions – much more than is traditionally available through many consumer oriented routing offerings.

ArcGIS Online Network Dataset Coverage map.

These geocoding and routing services are available as ready to use services in ArcGIS for Desktop, ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Pro or can be incorporated into custom-build apps.

About the Author

Paul Heersink is a cartographer and Production Manager of Esri Canada’s Community Maps Program: an initiative that is aiming to build a seamless topographic basemap using contributor data. He has over 15 years of cartographic experience, working in both the public and private sectors. Paul has always been interested in mapping and drew his own atlas at the age of 10. He took a detour in his career through the fields of psychology and social work before returning to cartography.

Profile Photo of Paul Heersink