When to Consider ArcGIS Online

Posted by in Code Samples, Web maps on .

This week I attended ESRI’s 2014 ArcGIS User Conference in Toronto to see what’s new with their software. I was particularly interested in their web services.

ESRI has a product line called ArcGIS Online. They have been pushing this at their user conferences for the past few years as they move more and more from their Desktop program to a cloud-based service.

In looking at options for creating web map applications I have fooled with ArcGIS Online in the past, but hadn’t really considered it for my clients largely because I didn’t understand their billing plan. There are other tools out there that have been easier to grasp as far as billing structures are concerned. But this year I was surprised to find that ESRI has become a lot more transparent (and perhaps more standardized) in how they bill for their online services.

Historically, ESRI has appealed to large corporations and governments because of their powerful GIS Software, and for some time has been the industry standard. The software is expensive, but it is well established and has a lot of functionality. Like the Microsoft of the GIS industry, I am not surprised that it has maintained it’s position for so long. I have used ArcGIS Desktop since the days it was known as ArcInfo back in the ’90s. I have also taken a training course with ESRI’s Flex API, but I have not used their ArcGIS Online services apart from browsing around a little.

Toronto2015PanAmHaving attended a seminar at the conference by Toronto’s 2015 PanAm Games GIS department, and spoken to a couple of ESRI’s sales reps. at the conference, I am now considering giving ESRI a second chance. Taylor Blake and Zara Matheson of PanAm’s GIS department said that they actually chose ESRI because of its affordability, and they have been happy with the choice they made.

The 2015 PanAm games will be a big event in Toronto. It is expected to attract more people than the Vancouver Olympics did, but having a lower profile (and budget) than the Olympics (their GIS team is comprised of 3 full-time workers and 1 intern vs. London’s 2012 Olympics which had 25 mappers), the team is in search for effective and efficient means of co-operating and collaborating with others.

Toronto2015PanAmVenueMapArcGIS Online has tools for developing some pretty usable web map applications without any knowledge of Javascript, and has given the PanAm Games GIS department the ability to set up infrastructure and cooperate with partners. They have been able to set up tools that allow other departments to build their own maps without the help of a GIS expert or programmer.

They were particularly happy with ArcGIS Online’s ability to story-board, setting up presentations similar to PowerPoint that include interactive mapping elements. Taking a look at some of ESRI’s samples, I really like the application they made to demonstrate Terry Fox’s run across Canada. This uses the story map tool, and is executed very nicely.

As I mentioned earlier, I have steered away from ESRI lately because I was scared of the cost, and uncertain of their billing structure, but the Pan Am presentation persuaded me to look into it a little more.


On further investigation I found that ESRI offers an ArcGIS Online Developer’s account for free. Developers get 50 credits free each month to explore, and see what can be done with the software. You can also use this plan to build apps for public, non-revenue generating, non-government, non-commercial use.

Additional credits can be purchased from ESRI through monthly subscriptions. Credits are then used at varying rates each time your web application executes one of ESRI’s web geoprocessing services.

50 Credits doesn’t go a long way. Even a developer is likely to need to start paying something if they want to do any practical development, but as you can see from their plans page, there are other options for $20 and $90 per month (and more for larger enterprises).

ArcGIS online charges based on Geoprocessing Service requests, so it is possible to design an application that minimizes requests, and could theoretically cost nothing. If you are an ArcGIS Desktop user, you may be able to do your processing on the desktop, and simply publish your results to ArcGIS Online. Even without desktop it may be possible to add a shapefile to a map and put it online.

Geocoding (converting an address to a longitude/latitude) is a very common process to be included in online mapping applications, and one of the ways you may use up your credits. Not lots, as a single geocode uses only 0.04 credits, but credits are credits.

You may be able to avoid calls to the geocoding service by converting these in advance using a geocoding service ArcGIS Desktop, and simply publishing the results. This will be effective if you know where you want to put markers in advance. If you need your user to enter an address you may still need to use a geocoding service, but if you have a predefined list of locations that need to be added to your map (store locations or venues) or if you already know the longitude/latitude via HTML 5 location service, you may not need to use credits at all.

The ArcGIS Online Developer account gave me access to make my own maps using their online interface, pulling in data from shapefiles, kml, tile layers, GeoRSS, CSV and more. I was able to create maps, presentations and Story Maps using only a fraction of a credit. Here is a sample story map that I was able to put together this morning.

I was able to build this story map in very little time using existing content and a KML file I had from another project, and a developer licence.

So what can you do with 50 credits? This was another area that seemed ambiguous in the past. It turns out there is a pretty clear explanation on ESRI’s website. Complicated models that need to be run from ArcGIS Online can not be priced out with a chart like this, but ESRI provides an estimate button so you can see what the impact of running your model will be before executing a geoprocess. “Very Little” they kept remarking when they ran a complex model in the presentation. It all adds up though, so be aware.

Credit transactions are billed against your ArcGIS account. This may be a developer’s account or a business licence. Each time a process is run the credits on the associated account will drop. When building an application for sale you will need to estimate your usage, and allow for this in your price. If developing for someone else, however, it is possible to change the owner of the application so that your client’s account is charged for further transactions.

ArcGIS Online is hosted in the cloud. While they do offer the ability to write your own JS ‘plugins’ with ArcGIS WebApp Builder, it turns out that for security reasons, you need to host it yourself if you want to include them.

So, will I be using ArcGIS Online in the future? I’m not sure yet. I certainly will do some experimenting with it. If I get enough interest I may write a follow-up article.

This entry was posted in Code Samples, Web maps and tagged , , on by .

About David McCarthy

David is a web developer, and a map designer. He has been working in the web development and cartographic fields in a variety of positions, including design, development and management. He has excellent interpersonal and team leadership skills proven through systems analysis, project management and customer relations. David focuses on the front-end aspects of web development. Responsive design and mapping applications are at the top of the list. He enjoys exploring new technologies, and building upon his mapping, web design and programming skills.

2 thoughts on “When to Consider ArcGIS Online

  1. Silagra

    Good post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

    Appreciate it!


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