What is ArcGIS?

Introduction to ArcGIS

ArcGIS is a comprehensive system that allows people to collect, organize, manage, analyze, communicate, and distribute geographic information. As the world's leading platform for building and using geographic information systems (GIS), ArcGIS is used by people all over the world to put geographic knowledge to work in government, business, science, education, and media. ArcGIS enables geographic information to be published so it can be accessed and used by anyone. The system is available everywhere using web browsers, mobile devices such as smartphones, and desktop computers.

ArcGIS is a complete system

If you are a longtime user of ArcGIS, you may think of it as a series of software programs and tools that you use to get professional GIS work done. As technology moves ahead, we invite you to consider an expanded vision of how the world works with geographic information, based around ArcGIS as a system. The ArcGIS system enables authoritative geographic information created by the GIS community to be easily and freely leveraged by anyone who wants to use it (and with whom they choose to share it). This system includes software, an online cloud-based infrastructure, professional tools, configurable resources such as application templates, ready-to-use basemaps, and authoritative content shared by the user community. Support for server and cloud platforms enables collaboration and sharing, ensuring that information critical to planning and decision making is immediately available to everyone.

You can think of the ArcGIS system as an infrastructure for making maps and geographic information available in a department, throughout an enterprise, between multiple organizations and communities of users, and out onto the web for anyone to access. For example, workers using mobile devices can be updating real-time measurements in the field while at the same time specialists are analyzing this information on desktop computers, and planners are doing impact assessments on the results of this analysis using web-based applications. Finally, maps and data resulting from the project can be published on the web so that anyone can access them via web browsers and applications on smartphones and tablets. This allows people to not only view the results of the project, but also to combine this data with other available data to create additional maps that put your geographic information to use in new ways.

People in thousands of organizations in many different industries use ArcGIS in a wide range of applications including planning and analysis, asset management, operational awareness, field operations such as mobile inspection and response deployment, market research, resource management, logistics, education, and outreach. In general, people use ArcGIS because it helps them to:

  • Solve problems
  • Make better decisions
  • Plan successfully
  • Make better use of resources
  • Anticipate and manage change
  • Manage and run operations more efficiently
  • Promote collaboration between teams, disciplines, and institutions
  • Increase understanding and knowledge
  • Communicate more effectively
  • Educate and motivate others

What can you do with ArcGIS?

ArcGIS enables you to:

Let's look at each of these areas.

Create, share, and use intelligent maps

Maps provide an effective way to organize, comprehend, and convey large amounts of information in a way that is universally understood. ArcGIS lets you create a huge variety of maps including web maps accessible in browsers and on mobile devices, large format printed map layouts, maps included in reports and presentations, map books, atlases, maps embedded in applications, and so on. Irrespective of how it is published, an ArcGIS map is an intelligent map that displays, integrates, and synthesizes rich layers of geographic and descriptive information from various sources.

ArcGIS map collage

Maps you make with ArcGIS both display information and put that information to work to support query, analysis, planning, and management. This is a key concept in ArcGIS: maps are both an end product of GIS work as well as a tool used in this work. An ArcGIS map is an interactive window with which people can visualize, explore, analyze, and update geographic information. With ArcGIS, you create maps not just for displaying information but also for finding and understanding patterns and relationships, performing analysis and modeling to solve specific problems, visualizing and tracking status, enabling data entry and compilation, and communicating ideas, plans, and designs.

Your ArcGIS map starts with a great basemap. ArcGIS has a beautiful set of built-in basemaps including topography, imagery, streets, terrain, oceans, and more. Many more specialized basemaps are available such as hydrology, land use, and geology. You can also create your own basemaps. For example, a city government can create a standardized basemap showing the city's land parcels and infrastructure. Once you've chosen your basemap, you can add rich layers of operational data, choose symbology, labeling, and scale ranges, and configure pop-up windows that present the key attributes of the map features. You can configure additional tools based on the purpose of the map, such as editing tools, access to analytical models, time sliders, and so on. Map templates simplify map creation and production. Once you've created your GIS map, anyone with whom you share your map can access it and put it to work.

Click the images to explore the map or app:

Compile geographic information

ArcGIS lets you synthesize data from multiple sources into a single coherent geographic view. These data sources include information from geographic databases, tabular data from database management systems (DBMS) and other enterprise systems, files, spreadsheets, geotagged photo and videos, KML, CAD data, live feeds from sensors, aerial and satellite imagery, and so on. In fact, any information record with a geographic reference, such as with a street address, city name, land parcel identifier, GPS coordinates, and so on, can be located and accessed on a map. Ready-to-use authoritative geographic data provided by Esri, data suppliers, and thousands of GIS agencies and organizations worldwide can be included.

Wildlife Operational Areas—Deepwater Horizon/BP
This detailed map was produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife GIS team as part of the Mississippi Canyon 252 (Deepwater Horizon/BP) oil spill response and combines ArcGIS Online IKONOS imagery, transportation, natural resources, and parish boundaries with current response deployment status, including federal, state, and local response unit boundaries, incident command posts, incident air operations bases, and animal rehabilitation facilities.

ArcGIS also makes it easy to create geographic data through smart digitizing that allow features to be drawn directly on a map and stored in the system's geographic database. Data collection and editing tools include template-based palettes of features that allow data to be gathered consistently. Through the use of mobile and web technology, data collection applications can be deployed for field workers and also for the general public to use, such as apps that let citizens report graffiti to their local city government. These inputs can be immediately integrated into the GIS for inspection, reporting, and work-order processing. These types of mobile and crowd-sourced maps are increasingly extending the ability of organizations to collect the latest data for their GIS and to respond to rapidly changing situations such as emergencies.

Land-use feature palette
In this map, a feature palette of land-use types is used to lay out land-use zones. You can sketch in (outline) proposed zones for visualizing and analyzing various land-use alternatives.

This ability to assemble data from multiple sources is especially useful when information is undergoing constant change. It enables the creation of situation status maps and real-time live dashboards. Key operational layers from the database can be overlaid with live updates being streamed in from sensors, other enterprise systems, or websites. These maps provide an easily understandable report of the current status of an organization's operations or a humanitarian crisis, and can be accessed by many users to provide a common operational picture, conveying up-to-the-minute status to decision makers, planners, and operations people in the field.

Create and manage geographic databases

Geographic databases are at the heart of professional GIS work. A geographic database enables geographic information to be stored in a structured form that allows easy management, update, reuse, and sharing. ArcGIS enables you to design, create, maintain, and use geographic databases, whether you are working alone or in a large enterprise. Geographic databases are typically where the key foundational layers of data used in GIS are stored and managed—layers such as parcels, administrative boundaries, utility networks, facilities, hydrography, elevation, soils, and so on. These centrally managed data can be symbolized, presented, processed, and published in an unlimited number of ways in ArcGIS maps.

ArcGIS supports very large multiuser databases in which data can be used and edited simultaneously by multiple users, allowing access, management, and updating by different users across numerous workgroups and departments. For example, updates can be made by back-office users and field workers at the same time, and each group can immediately see the changes made by their colleagues. These multiuser databases are implemented and supported in standard enterprise relational database systems such as Oracle, SQL Server, PostgreSQL, Informix, and DB2.

Click the images to explore the map or app:

ArcGIS supports a number of workflows that make it easy to manage large geographic databases. For example, in mobile situations where a connection can't be maintained with the parent database, an area can be checked out of the database to a mobile device, allowing edits to be made and posted back to the parent. Data can also be replicated between multiple geodatabase replicas, such as databases maintained at different branch locations, and changes made separately in each database can be synchronized across all replicas. Historical archives can also be created so that changes made to data over time can be reviewed and tracked. These workflows are particularly important in applications such as asset management, land records, infrastructure operations, and utility engineering.

Solve problems with spatial analysis

Spatial analysis is one of the most interesting and remarkable aspects of GIS. The goal of spatial analysis is to derive new information from your data in order to make better decisions. While symbolizing your data and viewing it on a map is itself a form of analysis, and maps inherently invite interpretation of the patterns and relationships they display, spatial analysis takes this a step further by applying geographic, statistical, and mathematical operations to the mapped data. ArcGIS has hundreds of analytical tools and operations that can be applied to solve a very wide range of problems, from finding features that meet certain criteria, to modeling natural processes such as the flow of water over terrain, or using spatial statistics to determine what a set of sample points can tell you about the distribution of phenomena like air quality or population characteristics.

Tornado impact model mapped using ArcMap
This ArcGIS for Desktop screen capture shows a model used to determine the likely impact of tornadoes and the results of running this model.

Whatever the level of complexity, spatial analysis allows you to discover patterns and relationships that might otherwise remain hidden, and turn mere data into actionable intelligence. You can combine inputs from multiple data sources and derive entirely new sets of information which can in turn be shared with others for use as inputs in further analysis. The results of spatial analysis can be presented in maps and reports. ArcGIS has a very rich set of tools for creating visualizations of spatial properties like density, distribution, clustering, flow, proximity, and connectivity. In addition, maps and applications can be created that provide access to your analytical models and operations so that they can be used by anyone.

Click the images to explore the map or app:

Some of the key analytical tools in ArcGIS include overlay for combining the geometry and attributes of different data layers, density mapping, cluster analysis for identifying neighborhoods, proximity analysis, surface analysis for working with phenomenon that vary continuously over space, and temporal analysis such as change detection for seeing how phenomenon change over time. 3D analysis lets you work with terrain and other volumetric data to analyze visibility, slope, and so on. Network analysis on transportation networks and utility infrastructure includes route finding, service area derivation, fleet management, schematics, and so on.

Analysis in ArcGIS typically involves first framing the problem and the factors that are involved, then assembling and understanding the input data, and choosing from the set of available analytical tools. Data may be processed in order to convert it to a form suitable for use in the chosen procedure. For example, point data representing sample measurements can be interpolated to create a continuous data surface that can then be combined with other surface data. Models and geoprocessing scripts can be created to automate multistep procedures, and these models and scripts can in turn be published and shared with other within your GIS community.

Create map-based applications

Creating applications let you turn your ArcGIS maps, data, tools, and expertise into information products that anyone can use. This virtually lets you unlock your GIS investment and put your maps and functionality to work for people in a wide variety of situations.

Applications can be deployed on the web, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Map-based applications are used by a wide-ranging audience from citizens to field workers, operations staff, knowledge workers, managers, and executives. Applications may be general-purpose, such as a web application aimed at the public that showcases the services your organization provides, or designed to support focused tasks and activities, such as a mobile application for field engineers, or a live dashboard for operations managers.

You can also use ArcGIS to add maps and GIS functionality into existing applications. For example, an in-house claims application at an insurance company could have a mapping component embedded into it. You can also use ArcGIS to embed maps into enterprise portals like Microsoft Sharepoint, COGNOS, and SalesForce.

A key feature of ArcGIS is that you don't have to be a developer to create applications. For example, if you create a web map with ArcGIS Online, you can feed your map to a web application by choosing the Share option and choosing from a set of application templates. Configuring these applications is easy.

You can find application templates for various industries in the User Communities in ArcGIS Online. The Configurable Apps gallery in ArcGIS Online contains a set of generic applications you can use to display your web maps. The Esri Story Maps are another set of user friendly web apps you can easily configure.

For developers, a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) are also provided, along with code sample libraries and other resources for the creation of custom applications. On the web, your applications can consume ArcGIS services such as map services and geoprocessing services. APIs are provided for JavaScript, Adobe Flex, and Microsoft Silverlight. HTML5 is also supported. Mobile development SDKs are available for Apple iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows Mobile. For Desktop applications, ArcGIS Runtime provides a collection of components and APIs for WPF and Java.

Communicate and share information using the power of geography and visualization

Communicating and sharing your work is perhaps the most rewarding part of GIS. The world wants to see your maps. Although people use GIS for many reasons, one useful way to think of GIS is as a powerful communication tool. Whether your audience is the public at large, planners, business executives, elected government officials, customers, students, or your colleagues at work, you ultimately want to use GIS so they can see and understand. The ArcGIS system and the 10.1 release makes it easy to communicate and share your work and put powerful maps, visualizations, and functionality into people's hands without requiring that they be GIS experts.

You can publish ArcGIS maps on the Internet as user-friendly, high-performance web maps that can also be accessed on smartphones and tablets such as the Apple iPad. People all over the world are already familiar with using maps on the web and their mobile devices, and now they are ready for yours.

You can create a new type of map-based information product that we call story maps. These are great looking, simple-to-use web applications that focus on a particular theme or topic. These are excellent for engaging and educating people, whether you want to educate the world, the mayor of your city, or executives in your company.

To see more story maps, visit the Story Maps home page.

ArcGIS has some incredible new tools for creating 3D visualizations, including photo-realistic renderings of cities. These 3D maps combine authoritative data from geographic databases, including the ability to query data in 3D, with the richness and familiarity of 3D visualization. Beautiful animated videos can be created showing fly-throughs of data, such as your analysis results, or enabling people to easily visualize change over time.

You can find more 3D resources in the 3D Community.