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Last Updated June 2018
Created by Paul Vieth
Updated by Sarah Clayton and Chelsea Smith-Antonides


This tutorial will include the basics of ArcGIS online but primarily focus on Story Maps. If you would like a more detailed look at ArcGIS online, please see our ArcGIS Online tutorial.

Table of Contents


ArcGIS is a Geographic Information System.

It has high end professional applications and functionality but also provides a free and public online version through which geographic data can be mapped and augmented with a variety of supplementary applications.

Here are some examples of what you can do with ArcGIS

The supplementary application we’re interested in today is called Story Maps.

Story Maps is a powerful tool that allows you to integrate an audiovisual narrative with the relevant geographic relationships between the moments of the narrative and their spatial locations.

Getting Started

ArcGIS uses the “freemium” model, so though they provide a professional version of their platform with high functionality for a cost, they also provide free public accounts. Before we get started, go to the ArcGIS Online portal and click “Sign In” to create a free public account. Feel free to use a pre-existing google account to sign up.

When you’ve done that, click on the Map tab of the main menu. From the Arc GIS Online frontpage, you can also access the Gallery to see the potential of ArcGIS Online, or access the maps you’ve made under My Content, once you’ve created some.

In the Map section, you should be taken to this screen:

ArcGIS Mapmaker

There are three things you can do from this screen:

Basemap and Zoom

ArcGIS Online only allows preset quantum zooming, so you must use the “+/-“ zoom buttons and operate within the coarse adjustments they permit.

ArcGIS Online provides 12 preloaded basemap options. The default is called “Topographic”, but there are options for satellite imagery, monochromatic maps, streetmaps from OpenStreetMap, and others. Think tactically and tactfully about what you need the map to represent (and what you don’t) in light of your project goals and aesthetic grammar.

You can preview these options and select what you would like to use by clicking Basemap on the upper left side of the screen.


The layers are the most important component of this preparatory process. Layers in ArcGIS can either mean map tile sets, or smatterings of geographic data (what ArcGIS calls “features”): both the quantitative data of latitudes and longitudes and the qualitative descriptions of what those points represent.

(Refer to the supplement section to learn how to add new tile layers (in the form of a beautiful watercolor map, for example))

There are several ways to “lay” geographic data onto the map you’ve set up: click the “Add” tab from the top toolbar.

ArcGIS Add layers menu

You can import layers from the web, search for publicly accessible layers on the ArcGIS Online server, or upload a file.

ArcGIS Online can work with KML, GeoRSS, or CSV files.

For this tutorial we’re going to be using a crime incident dataset provided by the City of Lynchburg, Virginia. The City of Lynchburg maintains an open data portal in the spirit of administrative transparency. Because of size limitations for individual file uploads into ArcGIS Online, we have reduced the dataset to only show the crime incident reports from January 2018. Please download the sample dataset here.

We originally download the dataset from the Crime Incident page of the Open Data Portal.Feel free to pursue the original dataset, but you will not be able to update the full set because of the size limits.

Selecting Location Field

On the left side of your map, you should see some options about how to display the data you just uploaded.

Styling Map Layer

[Quick note about this dataset: It comes with unique geographic identifiers for each crime incident. If you upload your own data, ArcGIS online will ask you to connect either latitude and longitude, or a set of postal address identifiers to the column headings in your data.]

ArcGIS will automatically adjust the position and zoom level of the map to neatly contain the data you “layed” on the map. You can also manually adjust the position and zoom of your map.

Remember: How you see the map on this interface is the default display of the map inside the ArcGIS Online web application (Story Maps)

This is the process for making any map in ArcGIS online. From here we will go on to create a Story Map using the map you’ve just created.

Story Maps

Initializing Story Maps

[Don’t worry about my funky-looking map below; it’s because I chose the Stamen Toner tileset for my basemap]

Notice the toolbar on the right at the top of the screen.

ArcGIS Online Save Share Print Measure Search Toolbar

The measurement tool allows you to determine:

You can also save your map from this toolbar. Make sure you do this now before we proceed by clicking Save.

Initializing your map in an ArcGIS web application is unintuitive from this view.

This will open a dialog box with access to the full suite of ArcGIS web applications, this isn’t the forum to discuss all of them, especially given their specialized functionalities, but we will explore the Story Map applications.

ArcGIS Story Map versions

We’re going to be working with Story Map Journal during this first section, but I really encourage you to play around with all 8 versions.

They represent different graphical/stylistic variations on the same concept: a map (one that you’ve designed in the map builder as above) accompanied by multimodal content presented with a set of geographic relationships to the map you provide. For Story Map Basic, that content consists merely of a clean presentation window with a brief description of the map. Also, Story Map Crowdsource (beta) requires an ArcGIS subscription, but the National Parks Service has created a great example of the power and poignancy of this application.

Initializing Story Map Journal

ArcGIS Story Map start window

This will take you to an option between a floating panel and a side panel. You can see live examples for both of these through this dialog box. For simplicity, select Side Panel and Click Start

From here you can take a tour of the Story Map Journal web application, this will briefly detail the functionality of the Journal.

ArcGIS Story Map Journal tour

Now we’re ready to turn our map into a story.

Building Your Story Map Journal

The Story Map Journal interface is divided into a Main Stage and a Side Panel. First select what you want your audience to see on the Main Stage. This is most often (and probably the intention of ArcGIS) a map, but you are allowed to make it an image, video, or web page as well.

ArcGIS Story Map Journal Building start

ArcGIS Story Map Journal Side Panel Editor

[If you want to get creative and personalize your Side Panel content with precision, you can open the code editor (tool button second-from-the-right) and input html and inline css]

ArcGIS text editor code editor

Now that we’ve placed the Main Stage content map and the Side Panel introduction, we’ve established the process we can repeat to create our entire journal. All that’s left is to go through the various functions of the side panel.

Side Panel Functionality

After you’ve created your starting view for your Main Stage (map) and your Side Panel introduction, there are only two actions you need to perform to enlarge and enhance your story.

ArcGIS Story Map Journal Add Section Organize Button

Each new section involves not just creating Side Panel content for that section, but changing the display properties of the Main Stage. So when you add a section, you’ll see this dialog box:

ArcGIS Story Map Journal Add Section Configuration Dialog Box

For each section you can set the content of the Main Stage to a map, image, video, or webpage.

If you keep the Main Stage content as a map, you can:

The Side Panel can contain

Here’s an example of the combined functionality of a section in the side panel (with each design decision highlighted in red). I re-centered and zoomed the map (to a particular neighborhood); I had the map display a detail pop-up of a particular datapoint; I have the overview map displayed in the corner; the legend can drop-down from the top; I have contextualizing imagery, video, and description in the Side Panel.

ArcGIS Story Map Journal final example

Now all you have to do is string sections together to create a larger multimodal narrative – all rooted in the geographic relationships of the spatial data and the multimedia qualitative anecdotes that make that data meaningful…

When you’re all done, you can share a link to your story map or embed it into a website.

Have fun!

[the story map created for this tutorial is completely fabricated and unrelated to any legitimate scholarly research project (thank goodness)]

Story Maps Cascade

Another Story Map that is worth exploring is the Cascade option. The Cascade creator has slightly different functionality, so let’s dive right in and test it out. From the My Stories page, select Create Story, and select the Cascade option in the window.

ArcGIS Cascade Menu

Building Your Story Map

The menu on the left side contains six options at the top:

ArcGIS Cascade Options

settings menu

Side Panel Functionality

Add New Sections Here

upload media section


Remove or Change Media

change media

Final Thoughts


Adding a New Tile Set

You can refer to this ESRI blog post for adding new tile set layers to a basemap.

Maps in online mapping platforms, such as Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, ArcGIS Online, etc., display as successions of image tiles. Each map view is a matrix of tiles and as you zoom in on the map, the tiles are replaced with new tiles with more detail, thus maintaining the map’s resolution.

There are a few ways to get a basemap tile set that isn’t included as one of the default 12 maps in ArcGIS online.

ArcGIS open public map tile layer in map view