You and your team may be using Google, MapQuest, or Microsoft's Bing Maps to identify the exact location of an event that requires attention. Type the address of, say, a broken water main into the service and you get a map of that location.

Free Web maps can be used to highlight assets, such as streetlights and manhole covers, for maintenance purposes. The assets are overlaid on a general base-map that depicts common landmarks, such as roads and property lines, for easy visual identification. The display is often interactive and allows you to pan and zoom to explore different areas.

Once such a map is generated, however, it can't be changed until it's been updated for a subsequent printing. And it's static, meaning it's just a picture. You can see a road and maybe figure out how long it is. But the map won't tell you whether the road's concrete or asphalt, what the speed limit is, when it was last paved, or any other critical details.

A GIS-based map can

Geographic information systems (GIS) were created to solve problems in addition to providing a map. GIS attaches other information — databases, pictures, CAD files, scanned documents, even other maps — to a map's features. Built-in analytical tools identify trends and patterns based on location and even time. These capabilities transform a static map into a dynamic map that can be used to proactively manage that road.

Cloud computing takes these capabilities even further by making the functions of GIS available when and where you need them. Data collected in the field can be transmitted back to the office via mobile devices for analysis and to update the GIS database — or geodatabase — on the fly. That information can, in turn, be quickly distributed to managers and the public in case of, say, an unexpected road closure or emergency. You can make decisions about assets in the office, the field, and even on the weekend at home from a smartphone.

How one Web GIS works

Developed by Esri, ArcGIS Online provides some necessary GIS resources in an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop interface.

Find maps relevant to your department by searching the cloud-based platform's catalog via keyword — “traffic cams” or “public airports,” for example. Begin with an existing map and add provided data layers or start with a fresh map by choosing from online basemaps and adding your data on top of it.

Users with no GIS experience (or software) can easily upload data from an Excel spreadsheet or Access database and visualize it as a map using symbolized points, lines, and polygons. They can configure interactive pop-up windows and integrate other data, such as reports, photos, documents, and links.

Because data are hosted in Esri's cloud, once a map has been created and shared, it's automatically part of an online catalog. Other members of your department can choose to keep data private, share with other groups, or share with everyone in the organization. Layers can be added later and shared again as new maps. The maps can be used through a browser, on a mobile device, in a desktop GIS system, or in a custom application.

The subscription-based collaborative mapping platform keeps data secure. You can, for example, make items public if you want them to be discoverable on the site and through search engines like Google and Bing. Or you can hide them. It's your choice.

—David Totman (dtotman@esri.com) is the public works industry manager for Esri in Redland, Calif., provider of the cloud-based ArcGIS Online asset-management tool. Visit www.arcgis.com.

WEB EXTRA

A free 30-day trial of ArcGIS Online is available beginning June 7, 2012.

TWO WAYS TO ACCESS ARCGIS ONLINE

Anonymous When you're not logged into the cloud-based collaborative mapping platform, you can use publicly shared maps and applications, view and download existing data, and use tools that are embedded in applications such as the place finder built into the product's map viewer.

Annual subscription Access Esri's cloud to create hosted services from features and map tiles and gain unrestricted, commercial use of applications, templates, and tools. Your department also gets user administration tools, content management, and customization options.