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Why we love vector basemaps

In the November ArcGIS Online updates, Esri released a set of vector basemaps. This blog post will explain the fundamental difference between vector tiles and image tiles and provide you the opportunity to visually compare the two.

Vector Tiles on Beta Testing

If you follow our updates, I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve come across the term “vector tiles”. At this year’s Esri International User Conference, Esri revealed plans for introducing vector tiles to the ArcGIS platform. After several months of anticipation, vector tiles are now available for beta testing! You can find all of the currently available vector basemaps here and use them to start building your web apps and maps with them.

The Main Difference Between Vector Tiles and Raster Tiles

Esri’s previous basemap layers were developed using pre-rendered raster tiles. They have been extremely helpful and useful; however, raster basemaps have certain limitations in performance and size. Over the last couple of years, there has been increased interest and demand for online mapping applications, as well as an evolution towards using these applications across different devices (e.g. phones, tablets and desktops). As a result, the need for fast rendering, high resolution basemaps has increased. Raster tiles lack the ability to provide such performance without compromising on image resolution. Vector tiles, on the other hand, deliver higher resolution and faster basemap services along with the capability of customization. Vector tiles will satisfy your need to create online and mobile mapping applications that will meet, and perhaps even, exceed your personal or organizational requirements.

If you are a developer and can’t wait to start customizing your own vector maps, you can find detailed steps on how to do so here, as well as in our ArcGIS API for JavaScript documentation. 

Why are Vector Tiles Faster, Interactive and Customizable?

Unlike traditional static raster tile basemaps, vector tiles are dynamic. Geometry, attribute and style data in vector tiles are stored separately. This allows vector basemaps to be interactive and return actual information on the features without going back to the server.  You will also be able to customize the symbology style file that is used to render vector tiles as much as you’d like. If you ever had to cache a map several times because you wanted to offer your basemap with various styles, now you will only need to customize different style files.

Due to the fact that vector tiles are generated on the fly and are cached only on a session-to-session basis on the client side, you no longer have to wait hours for your caching to complete. This also makes struggling with the storage space on your hosting server a thing of the past. For the clients, only features within the current extent are retrieved and they can zoom in as far as they wish to see the details on the map.

Time to See the Difference

I created a swipe map to compare the response time and the quality of the Dark Gray Canvas basemaps. The map on the left is the raster tile basemap and the one on the right is the newly released vector tile basemap. You will notice the vector basemap loads much faster than the raster basemap. The difference is quite significant when you pan around or zoom in and out quickly.

Another map t0 demonstrate the amount of details of each basemap. The map contains the raster basemap on the left and the vector basemap on the right. Vector basemaps do not have a tiling scheme and can zoom in significantly closer than the raster map at its maximum scale. This will allow the users to access high resolution basemaps for accurate data collecting or editing. Remember, this is only one of the new vector basemaps; you can find other examples of vector basemaps here and you can find more information about vector basemaps here.

What’s the Next Step?

With the release of ArcGIS Pro 1.2 in early 2016, you’ll be able to create and publish your own vector tiles to ArcGIS for Server and ArcGIS Online. Get ready and enjoy the exciting features of vector tiles! 

Let us know what you think of the vector basemaps.

About the Author

Christina Xing is a Technical Solutions Specialist for Esri Canada. In her role, she develops and delivers demonstrations and presentations that showcase Esri’s latest technology. Christina presents at the company’s user conferences across the country, as well as at tradeshows and webinars. With a strong passion in geography and GIS, Christina pursued an honours bachelor’s degree in human geography at the University of Toronto and a GIS Application Specialist certificate at Fleming College. She believes that all geographic interactions have an associated spatial component that can be mapped using GIS, and that GIS technology and applications have infinite possibilities for improving our community and environment.

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