Web GIS, Simply

I’m often speaking about, demonstrating, writing about, or using Web GIS. And I’m frequently asked things like “What exactly is Web GIS?” and “Why is Web GIS important to me?” To answer these and other common questions, here’s how I describe Web GIS, simply.

What is Web GIS?

Simply put, Web GIS is a pattern, or architectural approach, for implementing a modern GIS. It’s powered by web services—standard services that deliver data and capabilities, and connect components.

Web GIS can be implemented in the cloud (using ArcGIS Online), on-premises (using ArcGIS Server), or more typically as a hybrid combination, leveraging the best of both worlds.

Web GIS isn’t new, in fact it’s been evolving for a long while. But we’ve reached, actually passed, a tipping point where innovation in GIS and related technologies have made Web GIS not only possible, but essential.

Web GIS has been evolving for a long while, and has been influenced by innovation in many areas.

What is a portal?

A portal is an essential component of a modern GIS, and an inherent part of the Web GIS pattern. It provides a framework for sharing and using maps, apps, and data. It also supports identity, and provides the needed infrastructure to manage users, and how they collaborate.

Many kinds of organizations across the world have implemented portals to support their needs and activities.

I often describe a portal as the center of an organization’s geographic information ecosystem. It enables wider use and access to GIS data, serving GIS professionals, knowledge workers, decision makers, and developers as well as public access.

A portal can be hosted in the cloud using ArcGIS Online, or hosted on-premises using Portal for ArcGIS. Portals can be publicly accessible, or remain private—viewable only after logging in.

What is ArcGIS Online?

ArcGIS Online is a key component of the ArcGIS Web GIS platform. It is a comprehensive, cloud-based mapping platform that enables you to make and share maps and apps easily.

ArcGIS Online provides cloud-hosted storage, management, 2D and 3D mapping, publishing, and analytic capabilities that you can use to extend your GIS and empower others. ArcGIS Online also includes the Living Atlas, a vast collection of curated and authoritative content, including basemaps, demographic layers, live feeds, and much more, that you can use immediately and apply to your mapping needs.

What is a web map, and why is it important?

At Esri, a web map is more than a map in a browser. It’s a technical specification that the entire platform development team honors. This is why ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap can read and publish web maps, and why web maps can be used across the entire ecosystem in ArcGIS Maps for Office, in app templates and builders, and even by developers using the JavaScript API.

These characteristics make web maps an important building block of Web GIS. Web maps, along with scenes and layers, are part of a new geoinformation model that abstracts the details of data sources, and makes them easier to use.

This web map displays information from traffic sensors, highway incidents, and weather in real-time from across the Netherlands, processing millions of information transactions daily.

Web maps integrate a wide array of data, enabling you to integrate shapefiles, spreadsheets, ArcGIS services, services from ArcGIS Online, and the Living Atlas. Web maps are also the integration point for information from enterprise systems, Big Data, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Why is Web GIS important to me?

Web GIS provides many more opportunities to provide broader access to your authoritative GIS data, enabling you to move your system of record to a system of engagement that facilitates everything from self-service mapping to making better decisions. It makes GIS more accessible, more affordable, and more pervasive. It amplifies the value of GIS, and the role of GIS professionals.

Web GIS is much more than a new trend, it’s the new paradigm for implementing a modern GIS. It’s fundamentally changing how we think about GIS, and the role of GIS professionals.

The shift from client/server architectures to Web services enables us to connect to a world of information, from our enterprise to the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and more. It pushes GIS forward into real-time mode instead of static data. Web GIS enables us to be more agile, moving from custom application development to configurable templates and web app builders. And most importantly, Web GIS moves us from proprietary data into open data and shared services that can empower everyone.

If you’ve not done so already, it’s time to rethink your GIS, and consider the new opportunities and workflows that Web GIS provides. You can hear more questions and answers about Web GIS by viewing this video: 10 Questions for Esri: Web GIS.

Bern Szukalski

About Bern Szukalski

Tech evangelist and product strategist at Esri, focusing on ways to broaden access to geographic information and helping users succeed with the ArcGIS Platform. On a good day I'm making a map, on a great day I'm on one. Follow @bernszukalski or email bszukalski@esri.com
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  1. ericgakstatter says:

    Good topic Bern.

    The path to Web GIS is clear. Adoption/awareness is the challenge.

    There’s no doubt that many managers and executives (and others) would love to have access to a dashboard that exploits an organization’s geospatial data; offering data, charts, project status, etc to assist in quick, high-quality decision-making. The irony is that the vast majority of these folks don’t know what’s possible. Steve Jobs said something like “people don’t know what they want until you give it to them”. I think Web GIS is in this state.

    Non-GIS folks don’t want install and manage client software. Too much overhead.

    But, they will click on a web link that is contained in an email, bookmarked, or a shortcut on a desktop.

    In a way, I think calling it a Web GIS is intimidating. The term GIS typically equates to more IT overhead, and raises a red flag. The most effective way to kill a project is to say “we have to get IT involved”.

    Lastly, GIS folks are mostly over-tasked, like a lot of us are. To ask them to rethink their GIS is asking a lot, maybe so much that they will not consider this approach. However, the thought of extending their GIS is less intimidating, especially if there is a quick path to providing their colleagues and executive management with one-click web tools that improve the quality and timeliness of decisions.

    Eric Gakstatter

    • Bern Szukalski Bern Szukalski says:

      Erik – Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I couldn’t agree with you more. Especially about the fact that it’s hard for busy and over-tasked GIS folks to rethink their GIS. Some thought there is always good, but the steps are often incremental, taken over time, and opportunistic. It’s an evolution, not an overnight revolution. I usually tell GIS users to look for “problem spots” they have and try to solve them by leveraging new opportunities offered by Web GIS. Doing this incrementally keeps things moving in the right direction, something we all need to do.

  2. agol says:


    Nice blog post.

    Mike Sweeney

  3. ettiene says:

    Great article! Agree with the author – One should just remember that the normal (“conservative”) GIS exercises will never cease to exist – this is only the technology to present/combine/integrate the data and to be able to manipulate/run analysis on datasets (as explained above) and will always depend on data integrity…which in return can only be guaranteed through intensive GIS tasks/exercises.