Stepping Up Your Stories

We all have stories to tell, and how we tell these stories has evolved over time. From pre-historic cave paintings to more modern art forms of literature and photography, to social media applications, blogs and videos.  But what if you could tell a story with all of those components and portray them on a state of the art map?

ArcGIS storymap is a fantastic, versatile tool that can do just that.  With six different storymap formats and customizable features, this free, web-based platform can be used for education, visualizing data, showing the work of your organization, or whatever endeavor you set your mind to.  Plus, it’s easy to share via social media, or as a stand alone URL.  I’ll give you a quick low down on ArcGIS storymap, share an example of each, and discuss some of my experiences.    


Of course the first step is to create your FREE account.  Unless you already have a razzle dazzle ArcGIS ESRI account, go ahead and select “Create a Public Account”.  You won’t get all the bells and whistles of ESRI’s features, but you’ll get access to most storymap features and that’s what we are here for!

For those of you who don’t know, ESRI is a geographically impassioned, technological organization.  They created one of the most relied upon, top notch mapping programs, ArcGIS, which allows you to create maps and illustrate data related to geographic features.  GIS is an acronym for geographic information systems.  ArcGIS is not the only of it’s kind and a list of other GIS platforms can be found here if you want to get into mapping.  Many of these are open source, and may not require purchase and license agreements. I do not have much experience with these other platforms, but I’ve heard good things!  My one word of caution when working across platforms is compatibility.  Proprietary software will not give up its secrets so easily, but there are a number of GIS file converters to be found out on the web.

So lets start with the basics.  We’ve got an account, but how do we know which map will help us illustrate our story effectively?  I’ll review each in brief, but you can always “Ask the Pros” for recommendations.


Basic maps are just that.  You can show a single map with points and information, such as this one on Anthony Bourdain’s travels for in his show Parts Unknown.  This format is great for associating images to a specific place.  


The Spyglass format coolest comparative feature I’ve found! It allows you to layer two maps on top of one another and when you pass the spyglass over, it reveals the map beneath it. This map from NOAA uses a nautical chart of Gloucester Harbor and a spyglass to reveal the depth and shapes of the sea floor.  Though it may seem limited in the information you can include, the “wow” factor comparing maps in such detail can really drive your point home.  

3) SwipeSpyglass&SwipeBuilder

Similar to Spyglass, Swipe is also a comparative map that allows you move a bar from left to right. Swipe is great for illustrating land use or land cover change, such as this map of Fort Sumter. I recommend referencing which map is which in your caption, as I’ve seen some maps that are unclear. For Spyglass and Swipe maps, you need to select specific base maps for ArcGIS’s database, or use one you have already.


4)Map Series

MapSeriesBuilderMap Series are a great option for comparing multiple data sets and how they correlate to a map.  You can use one map, or multiple, as seen in this example on Hurricane Katrina.  You have three options when you use map series, customize to best fit your information!  Map series are great to illustrate the multiple dimensions of a story or study.


5)Map Journal

Map Journals are a great alternative traditional presentation formats like MapJournalBuilderpowerpoint.  The information frame and backgrounds transition seamlessly from one topic to the next, and multiple forms of media can be included. My one challenge working with map journal was photos, which can only be uploaded from Facebook, Picasa, Flickr or from a URL.  When using the URL, make sure said URL ends with a photo format designation (such as .jpg or .png). In a related vein, if you don’t like the way your background photos are being portrayed, consider switching between the floating and side pane options.

If desired, you can use a base map function similar to that of the Basic storymap.   Here is a great example utilizing a map as well as photography from the National Geographic BioBlitz 2015.  I am especially excited about this map because I was an education blitz leader for BioBlitz 2013 at Jean Lafitte National Park in New Orleans, which is summarized on the map point.  

6) Map Tour

MapTourBuilderMap Tours are my favorite. They place specific images on map points which can be referenced via a gallery.  Check this one out from U.S. Forest Service.

To place the photo on the map, it needs to be georeferenced, i.e. the photo must either have GPS coordinates associated (easy if your location settings are “on” for pictures taken by smartphone) or you can simply set a location for images using storymap prompts.  To make it even easier, if you are uploading from Facebook, whatever caption or context you gave that photo will translate into your map.  I’ve used this feature to illustrate my travels!


Some of the greatest features of storymaps are the customizable and Changebasemapinteractive components.  You’ve seen some of the “builder” options above, but you can also add color and change your basemap type for some extra story embellishments, as storytellers are known to do! Storymaps allow to you engage your audience and showcase a story, all while flexing your creative muscles.  Whether you are working on a presentation, developing classroom tools, sharing scientific findings or just communicating personal stories, I hope that ArcGIS storymaps proves useful to you. I know it has for me!



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