“Publishing” with GIS

The US Forest Service utilizes ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online. The former program works on a desktop and can seamlessly publish online. However, the Forest Service places strict limitations on who or what can publish. After all, with about 30,000 employees, it makes sense to vouch for what will be placed online. My first project to go from draft in my account to published externally was an ArcGIS Online StoryMap. This StoryMap was for the White House Tribal Nations Summit. With it, readers are able to learn about various investments in tribal relationships the USFS is involved in.

But wait, what’s a StoryMap?

First a bit of background. A StoryMap is a specific web application by “ESRI”, a geospatial software company. ESRI is one of the leading companies in the field of GIS. It’s very likely that you’ve already read a StoryMap somewhere online! StoryMaps integrate images, audio, and maps to tell a story. They typically have a more narrative feel than other ESRI products such as the Dashboard or FieldMaps. The purpose of the StoryMap is less ‘quick glance information’ and more of a guided tour of a subject. Usually, the map inserted into a StoryMap provides a geographic reference to the story.

A tall building is in the background while a banner reading “esri” is in the foreground. It is attached to lamppost. ESRI is a leading company providing GIS software.

How do you make a StoryMap?

I first created my map in ArcGIS Pro using information provided by the Office of Tribal Relations. I used the map to generalize locations of projects. The location was mostly based on offices of the branch of the USFS responsible for a particular project. After setting up my map, I pushed it into ArcGIS Online. Here, I worked on the cartography of the map. While on ArcGIS Online, I adjusted symbols, labels, and even when certain layers would appear as the scale of the map changed. For the informational part of the StoryMap, I used photos from the USFS Flickr. I picked out photos I thought were relevant to the story then used them as background for the text. Adding the photos added a more human component to the StoryMap while also breaking up the monotony of walls of text.

A screenshot of my StoryMap. At this scale the projects are symbolized with larger circles showing the number of projects in that area.
As you zoom into the map, more information populates it. Green National Forest boundaries and yellow Tribal Lands boundaries are show up. Further zooming in would make the names of both appear. The orange dots represent projects.

The Final Act: Publishing!

Of course, after putting in all the hard work, there’s still the actual process of publishing. If a StoryMap is not published, then it’s impossible to share it. There are multiple clearances with publishing. A GIS coordinator and public affairs official must both sign off on the ‘need’ for the project to exist. A beautiful StoryMap is not always cleared for publication just because it is well done. There must be a need for it as a communication tool. Luckily, throughout the process the StoryMap had already been edited and cleared by public affairs.

However, I had to find someone in our department who had the GIS clearances and accounts to actually publish it! Only accounts called ‘headless accounts’ can publish StoryMaps for the public. Importantly, these accounts are not associated with any one user and instead are published under the name of a Forest Service department. Luckily, another directorate in State, Private, and Tribal Forestry was able to help. Cooperative Forestry took on the task of publishing the map for Office of Tribal Relations, who lack their own GIS team.

Ultimately, it felt really good to be able to use my skills to help a department currently lacking in GIS capabilities. I hope in the future they will have staff on hand to publish more StoryMaps. I can see in the future the need for GIS to inform the public of where projects and funding are going towards. After all, a map is lot more fun and eye-catching to read than a 130 row table! Click here to explore the StoryMap.

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