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How to tell more compelling stories with your GIS data

As GIS professionals, we don’t typically see ourselves as storytellers. The reality is that when we spend most of our time managing data integrity in our databases, answering mapping requests and adjusting the performance of our web services, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. However, every map, app and dashboard we create tells the story of something, somewhere in the world. Therefore, it’s important for us to realize our role in helping those around us understand our world better. Luckily, there are plenty of solutions available to make your storytelling easier and resources to help you use those solutions. Read more for information on popular options and how to get started.

The message I heard loud and clear at the virtual 2021 Esri User Conference (UC) was that we need to use GIS data to tell more stories—stories that help support better decision making and that improve the future of humankind and of the planet.

Stories about your community, your research results, your projects, your assets and more can be very powerful. The more we make use of spatial information and share it with others, the more stories we are telling about our world. Hearing this at the 2021 Esri UC was inspiring to me and made me believe that I can make an impact for the better, even at a local scale.

When I talk about telling stories with GIS, you might think I’m only going to talk about ArcGIS StoryMaps in this post. But why stop there? ArcGIS StoryMaps is the obvious storytelling solution within the Esri technology stack, but it might not be the best storytelling solution for every story. What about a dashboard? When looking at a spatial dashboard, we immediately learn something about a situation or about the status of field operations, for example. Spatial dashboards tell very important stories. On the other end of the spectrum, what about static maps? They also tell essential stories. Including them in reports can be powerful as well.

To make more of a difference as GIS professionals, we need to simplify how we talk about the ability of GIS to help share information with large and small audiences. When using maps, we also need to consider adding context and other relevant links or documents to make the story speak more clearly to our audience.

When considering your storytelling options, I recommend considering your audience’s needs and skill level. Also, take the time to apply design best practices before deploying the final version. Get a head start with our instructor-led courses on these topics, which are packed with tips and tricks collected over years of experience. Your time will be well spent.

Let’s explore the most popular tips and tricks alongside some courses we’ve matched to them.

Web applications

When an app is focusing on a specific topic, anyone in an organization can use it to answer simple questions and improve their daily work. ArcGIS has many templates you can choose from and options for designing your own app using out-of-the-box widgets and themes.

Most of the time, web apps are used for internal staff, for the general public or for both at the same time. For such a broad audience, simple is better. Remember that most users of web apps will not think like GIS professionals do about widgets and filters. Keep your app as simple as you can and ask some of your audience members to test it before the official release, then adjust the app according to their needs. That way you can make sure that your app answers your audience members’ questions. If the app is too inaccessible, your audience members might disengage. On the other hand, if they enjoy the experience, they will be your biggest fan.

To learn about publishing best practices for web maps and apps, consider this one-day course:

ArcGIS Online for Publishers


Dashboards are used for gathering key information in one place. Using dashboards, you can pair key statistics with web maps, informative charts and graphs. They make it easy to quickly get answers or see where things are happening, allowing staff to make adjustments to company operations or to prioritize better. Decision makers and field crew coordinators are typical users of dashboards. This audience wants something easy to use and easy to access anytime and anywhere. Configuration options are plentiful with this solution, so preparation is key.

To learn key dashboard design tips, consider our one-day course:

ArcGIS Dashboards Essentials

ArcGIS StoryMaps stories

This option is the first that comes to mind when we talk about telling stories using Esri technology. ArcGIS StoryMaps can be used to tell a variety of stories, but pulling content, images, videos and other materials to complete the experience can be hard work. In many cases, communications teams are collaborating with GIS users in an organization to accelerate the deployment using both types of expertise.

If you’re new to ArcGIS StoryMaps and would like to get started efficiently, consider our one-day course:

Creating Story Maps with ArcGIS


To take storytelling with your data to a new level, try making the user experience specifically relevant for your audience. To do this, try curating GIS products like web apps, dashboards and more in a central location using ArcGIS Hub. Hub provides you with much more than an app gallery. Each page in a Hub can include images, videos, digital surveys, text, links to other web pages and .pdfs, and more.

I’m sure that if you’ve shared a web app with colleagues in the past, that you’ve experience the repeated emails from them asking you to share the link again because they misplaced it. Hub pages can be the one place they go each day to find the information they need. It’s possible to configure Hub pages without any programming skills, so anyone can do it with some design guidance.

To explore what’s possible and learn key tips and tricks for maximizing Hub, consider our one-day course:

Get Started with ArcGIS Hub for Your Organization

The solutions I’ve shared above aren’t the only ones available to help you tell stories using GIS, but they’re the most popular these days. If we can help you make a choice that will best match your organization’s needs, give your representative a call to get some preliminary guidance. Then, consider taking the relevant instructor-led course to get best practices knowledge. You’ll be telling success stories about your world in no time.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Carole Arseneau is a Market Research Specialist at Esri Canada. Over the years, she has advised customers from all industries on how to leverage GIS in their organizations. More recently, she’s been conducting market research to uncover details about the various jobs our customers do each day in various industries. This will help inform Esri Canada’s corporate strategy and better support our customers. Carole holds a Market Research certificate from the University of California, Davis, a GIS certificate from Florida State College in Jacksonville and a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from Laval University in Québec City. Being by the water has always made her feel at home and has given her inspiration to keep a positive outlook in life.

Profile Photo of Carole Arseneau