The power of maps

Maps provide windows to information

You can use maps to explore and discover almost any place.

  1. Open the Geography Treasure Hunt (World Heritage Sites) website.

    Landing page of the Geography Treasure Hunt map, showing a world map and a start button

  2. Click Start.

    A clue is shown at the bottom of the map for a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  3. Zoom and pan the map to try to locate the site.

    When you get close enough, a pin and label appear.

    Pin on Angkor Wat, in northwest Cambodia

    Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia, built in the twelfth century.

  4. Don't click Next. Zoom in further to explore the site up close.

    At a certain zoom extent, the map changes to show a satellite image. You can see the grounds of Angkor Wat and the wide rectangular moat that surrounds the temple.

    Satellite imagery of Angkor Wat

  5. Explore the area some more.

    Can you find more rectangular moats? Do those also surround temples? What else do you see? Do you recognize everything on this map, or is some of it unknown to you?

    The imagery on this map was collected by satellites and aircraft. While no map is completely unbiased, this one provides relatively little interpretation, leaving lots of room for exploration.

  6. Navigate back to Angkor Wat and click Next.
  7. Try to locate the other heritage sites in this game, and explore some of them up close.

    To continue your exploration, you can also try some of the other Geography Treasure Hunt maps.

    Maps do more than show where things are. They also spark curiosity and prompt further questions, such as, What is nearby? Why does it look like that? And has it always been that way?

Maps are data

Maps don't only provide a picture of what is on the ground—they can also be interactive repositories of data.

Has anyone ever told you that all of the maps have already been made? What about a map of the earthquake that happened earlier this morning? Our world is constantly changing, and we will never run out of things to map.

  1. Close the Geography Treasure Hunt map and open the Earthquake Watch dashboard.

    Dashboard with maps and graphs of latest earthquake events

    A dashboard combines maps and other data visualizations to monitor real-time operations. This dashboard displays earthquake data, including the earthquakes from this morning. The map's data is constantly refreshed in real time. A blinking yellow circle highlights the most recent earthquake.


    You can access the dataset used in this dashboard, and many others, on ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World. You can learn how to make your own version of the Earthquake Watch dashboard by following this blog tutorial.

  2. Click any earthquake point on the map.

    Because the earthquake data updates in real time, the earthquake data you encounter may differ from that in the example images.

    Orange point selected on the map with a pop-up displaying its attributes

    A pop-up appears with more information. In the example image, an earthquake in Vanuatu was strong enough to trigger a green alert. Fortunately, green means that no fatalities are estimated, although there may be economic damage.

  3. Close the pop-up.
  4. At the top of the dashboard, change Min Magnitude to 4.

    Filter by minimum magnitude set to 4 and Highlight the latest earthquake set to On

    The map and other elements on the dashboard are now filtered to only show relatively large earthquakes.

    The dashboard contains a list of the most recent earthquakes with a magnitude larger than 4.

  5. In the pane next to the map, click the Recent tab. Click any of the earthquakes in the list.

    Recent earthquake selected in the earthquake list

    The selected earthquake flashes on the map with a yellow circle. In addition, if you click on the Close-Up map next to the World Map, the map zooms to show you the earthquake's location in context.

  6. On the list, for the earthquake you chose, click the text that tells you the location of the earthquake.

    Link at the bottom of the attribute information

    The web page of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Hazards Program opens in a new browser tab or window. On this page, you can explore even more information and maps. The Earthquake Watch dashboard is only possible thanks to researchers all over the world who monitor seismographic networks and maintain this database and the Prompt Assessment of Global Earthquakes for Response (PAGER) earthquake reporting system. PAGER is an automated system for estimating the scope and impact of earthquakes to alert local authorities almost immediately after an earthquake occurs.

  7. On the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program page, click Felt Report – Tell Us.

    If you were near the site of this earthquake, you can report if you felt it. You can also fill out a survey to help PAGER better understand the extent and impact of the event and provide more accurate estimates.

    This map, and many others, allows you to access the information inside it, explore beyond what is currently visualized, and filter it to answer your unique questions. Maps provide a useful context for understanding large amounts of data and spotting consistencies that may be useful for better planning in the future.

Maps tell stories

Maps don't only provide you with information—they also help you interpret it. Some maps guide your explanation to tell powerful and engaging stories. When maps tell stories, they turn information into knowledge and understanding.

Next, you'll explore a story that combines maps, text, and other graphics to bring geographic information to life.

  1. Close the Earthquake Watch dashboard and open the Somalia in Crisis story.

    Small map showing the location of Somalia and a large photo

  2. On the side panel, scroll down to the Crisis in Context heading.

    A map of Somalia is displayed. Considered a failed state, Somalia has faced crisis for decades. When this map was made in 2017, 6.7 million people in Somalia were in need of assistance. The red circles shown in each region represent the number of people in need.

  3. On the side panel, click the Show total people reached button (you may need to scroll down).

    Show total people reached button

    Darker red circles appear on top of the existing map symbols.

    Map with two concentric red circles drawn on each region

    Banadir region, containing the capital city of Mogadishu, is a refuge for many internally displaced people. It has the greatest discrepancy between assessed and addressed need.

  4. On the side panel, scroll down to the section titled The Conflict.

    There are 2 million people in Somalia in need of protection from conflict. Two factors contributing to this violence are the militant group Al-Shabaab and clan warfare.

  5. On the map, click any of the gray circles.

    A pop-up appears.

    Pop-up for a conflict event on April 8, 2017, which had 13 fatalities

    These map symbols represent fatal conflict events in 2017. Each circle contains more information about what happened and who was killed.


    The Armed Conflict Location Event Data map displays the same dataset for over 50 countries and is updated weekly. If you cannot see all the data right away, drag the time slider at the bottom of the map.

    Armed conflict is not the only factor contributing to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Somalia. You can read through the rest of the story to learn how drought and epidemic have combined to threaten the lives of millions of Somalis.

  6. At the top of the side panel, click Return to overview.

    Return to overview link above the map title

    The story On the Front Lines of Famine opens in a new browser tab or window. Somalia in Crisis was created as part of this larger story.

    Story map title page with photo

  7. Scroll down to begin the story.

    This story explores famine from different angles in four countries, giving you greater context for the data you previously explored. It contains maps about violence, drought, population density, refugee flows, food insecurity, and aid distribution.

    Our world is complex and interconnected. Different factors combine to cause famine and different solutions must work together to end it. Maps help tell the complex stories that we need to understand if we are to make the right decisions to end hunger.

  8. At the top of the page, click Take Action.

    Take Action link

    The story scrolls to its final section, which lists real steps that you can take to help to address the humanitarian crisis described in the story.


    You can explore more stories, or learn how to make your own, at the ArcGIS StoryMaps site.

    Sound decisions require sound data. But this data must also be presented in a way that makes sense. Maps offer intuitive visualizations that can communicate many stories more effectively than words and pictures alone. When maps tell stories, they become powerful tools to both educate and persuade.

Maps can trigger emotional responses

Maps don't only convey information and knowledge. They can also make you feel.

  1. Close the Somalia in Crisis and On the Front Lines of Famine stories and open the National Safety Council (NSC) Memorial Site. Click View Memorial Stories.

    Map with photos of people in a side panel, overlaid with the map title and an Explore Map button

    More than 100 people die in the United States every day from opioid drug overdoses. Opioids include drugs derived from the poppy plant and synthetic drugs like fentanyl that share similar properties.

    In previous decades, the conversation around addiction was restricted to illegal drugs. But today, many people are dying from addictions that began with powerful painkillers prescribed by their doctors.

    This map serves as a memorial to those who have died in the opioid epidemic. Each point on this map was added by someone who wished to honor a loved one they lost.

  2. Zoom in on the map. If you live in the United States or Canada, navigate to your area.

    This map shows deaths in almost every state and province. People have died in large cities and rural areas alike.

  3. Click some of the pictures and read the description written for each person.

    This map can't bring these people back. But perhaps it can offer one of the many small steps we need to take in mourning. Perhaps it can make us feel a little less alone in our pain.

    This map displays data in a way that allows each person to be more than a statistic. It allows us to feel the scope of the tragedy not through numbers, but through individual lives.

    Have you lost someone to this epidemic? If you want to share their name with others who will explore this map, In the Add a Loved One section click Submit Your Information button.

    Submit Your Information button

  4. Maps aren't just things that we read and consume. They are things that we contribute to and create. Maps offer us a way to engage with our communities, be they local, national, or global. We can use maps to share our own stories and to connect with one another.

Maps provide innovative solutions

Maps don't only identify and communicate problems—they also help solve them. We can use maps to perform analysis and help improve our communities, prepare for emergencies, and plan for the future.

  1. Close the NSC Memorial Site and open the Safe Streets to Schools map.


    This story was created in ArcGIS StoryMaps with the goal of identifying areas where students might be at risk while walking or biking to school. Many maps start with questions that need to be answered or problems that need to be solved.

  2. Scroll down and click one of the gray squares on the map.

    Pop-up for Jefferson Elementary School

    A pop-up appears. The gray squares represent elementary, middle, and high schools in Pasadena, California.

  3. Close the pop-up.

    This map did not begin with schools, but with traffic accident data. This data was initially displayed as a collection of red points, such as in the following image:

    Red point data on a basemap

    On its own, this data does not say much. But when it was filtered and symbolized, more useful information and patterns emerged.

    Map with orange and red circle symbols in two sizes

    In the example image, larger circles represent fatalities, while smaller circles represent injuries. Pedestrian accidents are in red and bicycle accidents in orange.

    Safe Streets to Schools is a policy map. Policy maps are intended to help policy makers in governments or businesses decide where and how to direct their efforts. But from the map in the example image, you would not know where to allocate resources to improve student safety. For that, it was necessary to predict where students would be walking to school.

    Next, school locations were added to map. The surrounding street networks were analyzed to create buffers around each school. Each buffer represents a half-mile walking distance. These are the areas where students are most likely to be walking and biking.

    Map with accident and school data and buffer zones around each school

    Fortunately, some school areas are free of accidents. Many schools closer to the downtown area, however, are more susceptible to traffic accidents.

    Finally, the people who created the map found the five schools with the highest number of accidents in their buffer zones. These schools are the ones with buffer zones highlighted in white on the final map.

    Map with five of the buffer zones outlined in white

    The city may decide to expand school speed limit zones or hire more crossing guards. These decisions will be easier now that the city has a useful tool for deciding where these resources are most needed.

    You can re-create this map yourself by completing the Policy Mapping - Safe Streets to Schools lesson. You can view more maps, data, and tools for policy mapping in the United States at the Esri Maps for Public Policy site.

    A similar analysis can be performed to analyze problems and propose solutions in your own city. Every day, maps are created to help make decisions about everything from where to construct levies to how to limit the environmental impacts of new construction projects. Maps aren't just for show and tell. They are powerful tools that we can use to analyze our world and make the important decisions that will shape it.

In this lesson, you learned about maps, but more importantly, you learned through those maps—about famine and fentanyl, traffic accidents and earthquakes. Maps offer us a way to explore our world. They can be intuitive tools for visualizing and manipulating data. They can turn that data into stories to educate and persuade. They can move us and they can inform our decisions.

The data you explored came from different sources: the City of Pasadena, California; the USGS; and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as dozens of satellites circling the earth and hundreds of ordinary people in North America who wanted to share the story of someone they'd lost. None of us are working alone. Instead, we can combine the knowledge and data of our entire community to better understand and shape our world.

Today, geospatial information is more abundant and easier to access than ever. Resources like the ArcGIS Living Atlas and tools like ArcGIS Online mean that you don't need to be a government or large corporation to access large, diverse, and powerful datasets. Sharing our data and our maps means that we're able to compare and combine diverse factors in new and innovative analyses.

Our combined knowledge makes us stronger and smarter, and our maps more powerful. If you have data that you think other people might benefit from using, consider contributing it to the ArcGIS Living Atlas so it can be easily searched and accessed. Your data might provide insight or inspiration. It might even save lives.

You can find more lessons in the Learn ArcGIS Lesson Gallery.