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What does it take to make an effective Web GIS portal?

Progressive organizations across Canada that wish to provide enhanced geospatial capabilities to their stakeholders can either develop a new Web GIS portal or upgrade their existing portal. It’s good practice to continuously improve an organization’s portal with new content, functionalities and enhancements to meet stakeholder requirements. But what needs to be addressed when developing or upgrading a portal to make it one of the must-use Web GIS portals?

At a recent user conference, Esri Canada’s Chris North gave a very useful presentation entitled, “Web GIS Portals: Best Practices”. His presentation was based on some earlier work done by Bern Szukalski from Esri. Basically, it outlined eight simple rules for creating robust and useful Web GIS portals:

  1. Establish the vision and governance
  2. Configure your organization’s home page
  3. Establish your brand
  4. Organize content by groups
  5. Add useful content
  6. Create useful and compelling information products
  7. Embrace identity and roles
  8. Monitor and manage the Web site

The presentation provides valuable guidance that should be considered when developing or improving a Web site. It covers topics such as the type of supporting organization, prototyping and testing tips, using ArcGIS Online templates, branding the portal, grouping data and functions, adding and optimizing content, communicating geographically, plus monitoring and managing the operational site.

It’s quite clear that just slapping together a few Web pages does not make a very useful or popular Web site. The design, content and flow need to be carefully thought out so that portal visitors have a pleasant and useful user experience. For some, maps and GIS are a new undertaking so Web site usability is vital for user understanding and operation. However, if the user experience is too mechanical or repetitive, more knowledgeable and power users may become annoyed with the site’s user interface and go elsewhere. Thus, it’s critical that careful consideration be given to the appearance and functionality of the user interface including the number of clicks required to get to useable content.

ArcGIS Online is a powerful resource for making Web GIS portals. It contains the basic necessities for Web mapping that allow Web designers to incorporate “canned” capabilities or include their own applications. In addition, a large number of templates are available that allow designers to pick and choose not only the appearance of the portal, but also the functionality and tools required to tailor their portal for particular communities such as local, provincial or federal governments, utilities, emergency management, military, intelligence, telecommunications and parks. These templates are available at

Here are some of the groupings of Web GIS templates that can be easily applied to create, use and manage meaningful portals using ArcGIS Online.

So, if you’re planning to develop a Web GIS portal or improve your existing portal, technology decisions are important, but many non-technical decisions also need to be made to create the best portal possible. By following a few simple best practices rules, Web GIS designers, developers, users and managers can create and maintain world-class Web GIS portals.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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