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The Power of Storytelling and Map Making

Recently I listened to the podcast: “American Futures” and the power of maps. The interview was part of the “American Futures” project, which is a joint endeavor of Esri and The Atlantic to describe America through journalism. The idea of the American Futures project was created by the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows. The podcast also included an extended interview with Esri President Jack Dangermond, who described the power of mapping and how GIS has transformed the public sector. One quote in particular I found fascinating, Dangermond said:

Usually when I look at a map I am hunting for a story. What is the map trying to tell me, the stories of map range from simple things, where I am, how do I get there, what kind of elevation are we at, descriptive kinds of stories, context stories to analytic maps, like this is the best place to locate a store, this is the worst spot, this a hotspot for biodiversity, this is where the diseases are spreading, these are stories. Good cartographers can actually craft good stories, using mapping as a story telling framework.”

Maps tell stories, and can improve decision making for the public sector. That’s why I wanted to share a GIS case study from the Colorado floods that have plagued the state. Esri has set up a site that displays how the maps were used during the crisis in Colorado. They included 5 different kinds of maps. These maps are important to learn about and share, as communities are increasingly becoming susceptible to natural disasters and crisis, there are many lessons learned and best practices to share, showing the power of GIS during a crisis. Here are the maps:


Assess Your Community Map

With this map, a Colorado resident can enter their address and explore images from the Civil Air Patrol or from FEMA’s Disaster Reporter app. If you have evacuated your home, or want to check on your family in Colorado, this map can help provide improved clarity to what is happening on the ground.

Colorado Flooding User Map Gallery

These maps were user-generated maps and also authoritative live feeds, which connected social media and web content using ArcGIS Online. One map in particular was the 2013 Flood Closure Map in Weld County.

Colorado Flooding

Using GIS technology, citizens can explore damage from flooding in Colorado by browsing photos from the Civil Air Patrol.


Longmont Photo Tour

Similar to the Colorado Flooding map, this map allows users to explore damage from flooding in the area around Longmont, Colorado by browsing photos from Esri’s regional office in Denver. 


Colorado Flooding Impact Map

This map shows the impact of Colorado flooding on various communities. With this map, you can view demographic information for cities, accumulated rainfall, active shelters, and other curated points of interest.



These maps are evidence of the role that GIS can play to transform how agencies respond, react and recover during a crisis. If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to check out our report: The Mapping Revolution: Incorporating GIS in Government. We explore many of these themes that were only just touched on in this post. Specifically, the guide includes:

  • Case studies of GIS use in the public sector
  • Lessons learned and best practices for GIS adoption from experts
  • The role of GIS to create an open and transparent government
  • Interview with Esri President, Jack Dangermond

Additional GIS Resources:

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When Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.

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