I’ll admit to loving brain-storming sessions. I’m a big picture person, so stepping back, pulling together and linking ‘pieces’ is an exercise I love doing. We had one of those sessions this week. Our ‘big hairy’ question: “What questions does ArcGIS help answer?”

Yep, there are a million answers to this question. And ‘the where’ is at the heart of everything. But, taking a big picture perspective, we started throwing ideas on the white board …  hazard maps, reporting on pot hole apps, offline editing, routing, listing land for sale in a story map .. the white board became covered with thoughts and ideas.

With no more space left on the white board we attempted to group each of the ideas. What emerged was fascinating.

What is the ArcGIS solutions pyramid?

From our brain-storming session, we came up with 5 groups. These groups we realised formed the elements of a pyramid: an ArcGIS Solutions pyramid.

Let’s walk through each of the levels of the pyramid.

Levels 1 to 3 we call STATIC. Each level adds new data complexity.

ArcGIS Solutions Level 1 – Basic Map Publishing

What core question does this base level help answer?

“How do I view my data on a map?”

Level 1 is basic map publishing. A simple exercise of plotting data on a map. That might be a CSV or shapefile. One thing ArcGIS Online (AGOL) does incredibly well is to allow users to easily publish and view their data on a map.

ArcGIS Solutions Level 2 – Build a Map

Level 2 is focused on map building. A question here might be:

“Which zip codes have the highest concentration of my customers?”

This questions demands multiple data-sets. That’s multiple map layers published in a web map. Combined data-sets provide a deeper level of insight; multiple dimensions or patterns in combination. Finding the appropriate data, ensuring the data is complete and accurate are requirements of this map building level.

ArcGIS Solutions Level 3 – Calculate and Build a Map

What do we mean by calculate and build a map? A question here might be:

“I have a custom trade area, i need to know the population and sales per square mile respectively for each trade area in the State of Utah.”

This is a more complex question to answer. Starting with the data gathering exercise from level 2, calculations are needed between the datasets. In this case first we need to pull trade areas, next enrich with population and sales data. Finally calculate for each trade area the population per sq mile and sales per sq mile. Finally build the map.

That covers the first 3 levels of the pyramid. These we call STATIC, since they provide a single ‘on demand’ answer to a question. The focus is on visualizing data patterns and relationships.

The top 2 levels of the pyramid, discussed next, are DYNAMIC, meaning users are provided tools to answer different questions, or the same question answered in different ways. That means web maps embedded in apps. At least one of the lower levels (2-3) in the ArcGIS solutions pyramid is required for these two upper levels.

ArcGIS Solutions Level 4 – Multiple Solution App

Simple or complex, level 4 is a multiple solution app. We sometimes use the analogy of a swiss army knife. That is one app which can answer many questions. These are usually widget based web apps. Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS and GeoAppSmart for ArcGIS are two examples of these types of apps. They are flexible, configurable apps which can be used on any device in the field or office and, in the case of GeoAppSmart, also work offline or in areas without wireless connectivity.

ArcGIS Solutions Level 5 – Single Solution App

These are highly focused and custom apps respectively. An application which is designed with one focus area (or question) in mind: a community engagement app designed to help the general public report issues such as pot holes is an example here. Another might be a custom app designed to answer complex questions. In our case integrating IBM’s Maximo asset management system with ArcGIS to provide mobile inspection capabilities for field staff is a good example.

Why do you need to understand the ArcGIS solutions pyramid?

The ArcGIS solutions pyramid is a wonderful way to categorize and think about how to approach a ‘where’ question in need of an answer. I’ll give you a great example from our world as GIS consultants. We had a customer who came to us wanting to quickly get started with AGOL. They had limited knowledge of GIS and no in-house ArcGIS expertise. Their request was for our ArcGIS Jumpstart: set up, configuration, an overview of AGOL capabilities and away they would go. We asked them the reason for wanting to use AGOL. Their response:

“We have a custom trade area, we need to know the population and sales per square mile respectively for each trade area in the State of ……”

You’ve seen this question before. Its a level 3 question. Given the description of this client, do you think an ArcGIS Jumpstart would help them find their way to an answer to this question? In their case we have become their external GIS department, to help them answer these and other mission critical questions.

We’ve started using the ArcGIS solutions pyramid as a high level guide, as we engage in initial conversations with clients. It has proven very helpful in assessing project levels of effort, and clients abilities to answer their business ‘where’ questions with or without help. You may want to consider constructing something similar.

Want to get keep track of new developments in the world of maps and GIS?  Subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter, and get a free copy of our white paper ‘From Where to There’, which provides a road map for solving problems with intelligent maps and GIS.

matt_sheehanAuthor: Matt Sheehan

Matt Sheehan is a Principal at WebMapSolutions. Matt evangelizes GIS and intelligent maps around the world through keynotes, articles, tweets and his books. Follow him on Twitter:

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