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Monday, February 2, 2015

Four Reasons I'm at Peace with Esri Story Maps

The story maps name can lead to
unrealistic expectations.
Esri story maps appeared in 2011. Since then the story map concept and some of the implementations left me uneasy. But, after some research and reflection, I've made peace with story maps. Here's what I learned.

Story Maps is a Name, not a Definition

Why story maps? Esri offers answers in the 2012 white paper Storytelling with Maps: Workflows and Best Practices (2/13/12, pdf).

Story maps are meant to:
  • Spread the word about the power of geography and GIS,
  • Demonstrate that ArcGIS is an effective communication platform, and
  • Enable ArcGIS users to create their own web maps through examples, templates, and best practice documents.
There is no mention of stories here. That's ok because the term story, as I now understand it, is a stand-in adjective. The discussion below of the meaning of "story" is from a draft version of a white paper titled Telling Stories with Maps (2/13/12, pdf). I suspect this draft was a precursor of the one noted above, which does not include these important statements.
“Story” in this context is not a traditional text-based narrative; rather, it’s the concept or message that a story map is intended to communicate. Text is an essential component of most story maps, but it plays a supporting role, with the map or series of maps taking center stage. 
The best story maps deliver a clear message to a well-defined audience, and are useful to that audience by providing a service, presenting interesting and useful information, or providing entertainment. Their content and user experience should be appropriate to the audience’s level of knowledge and ability.
I agree with Esri's choice of names. "Concept maps" or "message maps" does not have the marketing punch that story maps does.

Bottom line: Don't expect a narrative story.

Story Maps are About Access

Esri has introduced a myriad of efforts and products over the years aimed at bringing geography and GIS to as many people as possible. One of the latest examples is the company's participation in the Obama administration's ConnectED initiative (2014), but recall that ArcView 1's tagline (1992) was "GIS for Everyone." ArcGIS Online is another part of that effort. Story maps are a way to make ArcGIS Online more accessible to everyone.

When I say "everyone" I mean both story map creators and users. The templates allow even grade school students to build and publish their own maps. The interfaces, many with numbered tabs or "tour" stops, guide the user through the content. The templates do indeed "spread," "demonstrate," and "enable" mapmakers and map users. These are three the verbs used in the bullet points above.

Bottom line: Story maps are geared to be simple to create and simple to use.

Story Maps Can be Great or Not

The Web is littered with poorly written articles (some with my name on them), overly wordy presentations and bad maps. They stem, in part, from regular people (aka "everyone") having access to tools like Word, PowerPoint and any one of the easy-to-use mapping software packages. Simplifying the process of creating a story map means many of them have room for improvement, too.

Bottom line: Story maps have room for improvement, just like everything else on the Web.

Story Maps are Maps

Esri introduced story maps as a new concept in interactive Web mapping and Web GIS. That's good marketing, no question. But, in the end, story maps are (just?) interactive maps.

Bottom line: Evaluate a story map as map; that sets realistic expectations.


Like many things in life, my discomfort with story maps had to do with my prejudices and unrealistic expectations. Having worked through my issues, I'm happy to look at all the interactive maps on the Web with a clearer mind.