Simple Map-Making with ArcGIS Online: A Brief Tutorial

As discussed in several of our previous posts by Fatma, Deniz, and Giulia, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a useful technology for scholars in the different humanities fields. Since these posts elaborate on the importance and applicability of GIS tools in humanities scholarship in detail, I will keep my intro brief and jump into presenting an easy and simple map-making tool: ArcGIS Online.

ArcGIS Online, maintained by ESRI, is a cloud-based GIS mapping software that enables users to create maps, make spatial analysis, visualize data, and share them. This post will only introduce how to create a simple map, from scratch with this software. Since I specialize in the early modern Ottoman Empire and focus particularly on Istanbul, the map will be about the historical public fountains in the Üsküdar district in Istanbul. You can find the dataset for this brief project here

ArcGIS Online is a powerful tool to build beautiful maps with a low learning curve. It is also the most hustle-free map-making software, compared to QGIS and ArcMap/ArcGIS Pro. Yet, there is a catch here; unfortunately, it is not free. Despite this, you can create a free trial ESRI ArcGIS account by clicking this link, which will give you full access to ArcGIS Online for 21 days. Plus, if you are a student or a scholar affiliated with a higher education institution, you can consult with the data services department at your institution, which may have an arrangement with ESRI.

After creating an account and logging in, we can start making our map by creating a map layer.

Go to the content section on the menu. Here, you click the create button and select feature layer, then build layer on the left side. 

In the next window, we have three main options: linespoints, and polygons. Since we are drawing a map of historical fountains, it is more logical to select points. However, if you draw enclosed areas such as lakes, neighborhoods, cities, countries etc., you should pick polygon. For linear features such as roads, pipelines etc., select lines.

After selecting points, click create, then next, and a small window will pop up. Now move the map until you locate Istanbul and click next.

Here you need to give a title to this map layer – let’s call it “fountains”. For tags, you can use Istanbul, Public Fountains, Ottoman Empire etc. When you click done, you will have your first map layer ready. 

So far, we only created our map layer, but have not started our map project. So, return to home screen and select the Map section on the top menu, where we create our project. Click New Map on the top right. Then go to find address or place, and type Uskudar, where our public fountains are located. When you press enter, you will automatically zoom in to the location on the main map. You can also zoom in or out with a button on the left.

Next we have to change the basemap. Click the basemap button and select Light Gray Canvas. You can also use georeferenced historical maps as your basemap. (Refer Fatma‘s recent post on this topic).

The next step is to add the map layer to our map project. Click the Add button on the upper left and then click search for layers. As you can see, the layer, which we just entitled “fountains”, appears. (It is important to note that there are a number of free map layers prepared by other cartographers. To locate them, click the my content menu and select ArcGIS Online. Here you can search available map layers with a built-in search engine). Click the fountains layer and add it to the map. Not surprisingly, nothing will be changed on the screen since there is no data in our map layer. However, before moving forward, we should save our map project. Click the save button and write the title of this project when prompted. I saved it as “The Historical Public Fountains in Uskudar.”

So, our map layer currently has no content or value(s). We also need to add fields to determine the various features of its content. Click details on the top left and select contents in the middle.

As you can see, there are two map layers here: the fountains layer and the basemap. Move your cursor toward the fountains layer, and new icons will appear. Click the one that looks like a table. The bottom right is the place our data is shown as a spreadsheet. Yet, there is nothing in it. First, we need to create field names. Click the three straight crossing lines on the bottom right and select add field. A new window will pop up.

Name this field BuildingName. (It is important to note that field names cannot contain several characters including spaces). Since this field concerns the fountains’ names, you should pick string as the type. If you need to create a field related to numeric values, you should select float or integer types. Then click add new field. In addition to BuildingName, repeat the same process of creating fields for BuildingDate and Patrons.

Now, we are ready to add content to our map layer. We will pinpoint the locations of public fountains and add related information. Go to the Edit section on the bottom left and click New Feature. Here is the tricky part, especially for historians. It is sometimes challenging to find the location of historical buildings. I generally use GoogleMaps to find the exact coordinates of a historical building. Or you can georeference historical maps to locate historic buildings, districts, neighborhoods etc. Once you have found the exact coordinates of the building, enter it in the find address section and click enter. The map will zoom in to that location. Here, left-click on that location, and a new small window will pop up.

You can fill in the information on each section for that fountain. The first fountain I created is the Sultan Ahmed III Fountain. Its coordinates are 41.026780, 29.015386. You can also add a photo or picture of that building as an attachment, then click close. If you go back to the details section on the menu and click that fountain on the map, you will see the info that we just added.

The next step is adding more data. We will repeat the same process for several other fountains. Don’t forget to click the save button!

Now, we have added several more of fountains from our database. If you would like, you can keep finding these buildings and add them to our map layer.

It is important to look talk briefly about symbology, which is a powerful feature. In order to change the fountain’s icon, go to the details section. Then move the cursor over the map layer and select the change style icon. Click the options button on the next screen and select symbols. I will not change the symbol for this map layer, but you can play with different symbols when you create your own map.

Finally, our map layers are ready for printing. Move your cursor over the map to cover the area you would like to print. Then click print section on the menu and then Map with Legend. A new window will appear, right-click and then click “save image as.”

You can also publish your work as a storymap, which combines maps with narrative text, images, and multimedia content to create user-friendly web apps, but this will be a topic for another post.

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