ArcGIS for Desktop


Name: ArcGIS
$: Varies
Example: Roma, Forced Evictions and Segregation in Italy (featured map by Angela Chang)
Level: Intermediate to Advanced depending on project complexity
Use For: Visually representing research; Conducting geographic analysis


ArcGIS can be used to edit and analyze geographic information as well as generate a wide variety of static maps. Lincenses for ArcGIS start at $1,500. ArcGIS contains multiple applications. The main application is ArcMap which is used for mapping, editing, and analyzing 2D data. ArcGlobe and ArcScene are both part of the ArcGIS 3D Analyst extension and are used with 3D data. ArcCatalog is used primarily for data management. Using ArcGIS requires an advanced level of understanding, however there is a very comprehensive help library. The software is compatible with a variety of geographic information files.


At its most basic level geographic files can be layered on each other to produce a map. The user can choose the symbology that is used, what aspect of the feature is visualized, and whether features are labelled. The user can choose the zoom level of the map. There are various items that can be added to the map, including a scale, title, and legend. The map can be exported as a PDF, JPEG, TIFF, and more.



The user can add new features to shapefiles and geodatabases or add information to the attribute table which describes features in a file. The user can also create new files and add geographic information to them by drawing features or importing data from a GPS device. There are many ways files can be edited, including converting files to different projections and creating new files from selected information in a different file. Files that have been edited can be used to create maps using ArcGIS for Desktop or uploaded to ArcGIS Online.


ArcGIS also has a wide variety of tools that allow the user to manipulate and analyze the geographic information. Some of the tools include:

If a large amount of tools need to be used or an operation needs to be performed on a large number of files ModelBuilder or Python can be used to create a tool that will perform the necessary steps.




Name: Leaflet
$: Free
Example: The Ellis Act
Level: Advanced
Use For: Visually representing research


Leaflet is a JavaScript library that allows the user to embed maps into websites. Their website has tutorials which explain the code needed to create different kinds of maps and a page which clearly outlines their API. Leaflet can be used on a variety of desktop browsers and mobile devices. Many plugins have been developed to expand the capabilities of Leaflet.


Maps are interactive with popups and zoom. Layers, such as markers and polygons, can be added. Leaflet is compatible with OpenStreetMap, Mapbox, CartoDB, and ArcGIS maps.



Name: CartoDB
$: Varies
Examples: Syria conflict: a year of deaths mapped (featured image), A Map of Attacks on Health Care in SyriaDeath sentences and executions in 2014Does your country share your data with the USA?
Level: Intermediate
Use For: Visually representing research; Mapping change over time


CartoDB allows the user to create interactive online maps. Free accounts cannot have private maps but have unlimited map views. Subscription plans start at $29 per month or $319 per year and Enterprise plans start at $7,999 per year. Most of CartoDB Editor’s features are designed so they can be used by those without coding knowledge. However, using CartoDB Platform developers can incorporate the maps into their applications. CartoDB maps can be viewed on a variety of browsers and mobile devices.

Data can be added to CartoDB in a variety of forms, including SHP, KML, and CSV. These files can be imported from a computer, Google Drive, Dropbox, Twitter, ArcGIS Online, and Salesforce. The user can also create an empty table and add data to it manually. Once uploaded the data can be edited and georeferenced as necessary.


It is easy to switch between table and map view while editing. To create a map that can be shared the visualize option must be selected, this allows the user to configure the map for desktop or mobile and add elements such as titles and annotations. When mapping the data, multiple layers can be added and SQL can be used to choose what data from each table is mapped.


CartoDB has a variety of basemaps or custom maps from platforms like Mapbox can be used. There are also visualization wizards that allow the user to choose from a variety of preset ways to visually represent their data. The map legend is preset by the wizard but can be adjusted. The Torque option allows the user to create animated maps that show changes in data over time. Information windows can be set to appear when the geographic feature is clicked or hovered over and can be adjusted to include the desired fields from the table.

CartoDB has a fairly intuitive platform, however the online introductions and tutorials are very helpful. CartoDB also provides guides about how to use SQL and CartoCSS in the editor. The geolocation feature can be difficult to use for some types of information, but overall is an incredibly valuable tool.

ArcGIS Online


Name: ArcGIS Online
$: Varies
Examples: US Drone Strikes in Pakistan (featured image), Enforced Disappearances in Syria, Civilians Under Attack in South Sudan
Level: Beginners
Use For: Visually representing research; Telling a story with a geographic component


ArcGIS Online allows the user to create interactive online maps. It is free for individual users, though all content generated will be public and cannot be for commercial use. Online subscription plans start at $2,500 per year for 5 users. Maps can be viewed on desktops and mobile devices and can be shared through links or embedded in websites. If the user wants to have more interactive content or tell a story ArcGIS Online has many templates to choose from. Those with advanced knowledge can build custom web and mobile applications that include the user’s maps.


ArcGIS online allows the user to zoom into the area of interest and choose what kind of basemap they would like to use. Basemap options include:

  • Satellite Imagery with or without labels
  • OpenStreetMap
  • Terrain
  • Topographic Maps

The user can upload layers from their computer or add layers from the web. The user can also add map notes. Map notes allow the user to add features, such as points, text, lines, and areas. These features can have pop ups associated with them that display text, images and charts.


The interface is easy to use and does not require prior knowledge of mapping. Adding features is a simple matter of pointing and clicking. There is also a tool to measure distances and areas, as well as find the latitude and longitude of points.


ArcGIS Online has a variety of templates and each has its own unique settings. US Drone Strikes in Pakistan is an example of a Story Map Journal, while  Enforced Disappearances in Syria and Civilians Under Attack in South Sudan are examples of Story Map Tours. Story Map Tours only allows ArcGIS basemaps and the content associated with each location is designed to highlight photographs and videos. Story Map Journals allow the user to better present text associated with a location, while still including photographs and videos. Story Map Journals also allow the basemap to be set to a user created map, which means the user can create a map using ArcGIS Online that highlights certain features and set it as their basemap.

Other types of templates include:

  • Story Map Tabbed
  • Story Map Side Accordion
  • Story Map Bulleted
  • Story Map Swipe
  • Story Map Spyglass

The templates are easy to use and most walk the user through the steps to create a map using the template.