Online GIS

Introduction to
online GIS

Online GIS is accessed via web browser. This means it can be accessed on any device that's connected to the internet.

This stands in stark oppostion to desktop GIS, which can only be accessed on the computer where it was installed.

For decades, desktop GIS defined the trajectory of the GIS industry. It serves as a solid foundation for future innovation: a future that online GIS will help to define.

Some might argue because online GIS offers different functionality than desktop GIS, it can't be considered GIS. This is an oversimplification.

New to GIS? Get started with part one: What is GIS?

geo-located media

Online GIS software expands the definition of GIS.

Offering a fresh perspective on GIS: online mapping platforms complement the power of desktop, while benefiting from advances in modern technology.

This chapter will explore the differences between online and desktop GIS, the online GIS options available today, as well as the benefits and future of this emergent technology.

I. Online GIS vs Desktop GIS

II. Online GIS Software Comparison

III. How Online GIS Can Benefit Your Entire Organization

IV. The Future of Online GIS

Discover real-world examples of Online GIS in action in our blog Intro to GIS: What It Is and How to Get Started.

Online GIS vs. desktop GIS

The primary differences between online and desktop GIS software are in how users access the platform and how data is stored.

Online GIS is accessed via web browser and all data is stored on the cloud.

These types of platform are often (but not always) cloud-hosted. This means that both the program itself and any associated GIS data is managed offsite on the vendor's servers.

This allows users to access data from anywhere and see any updates in real-time. It also negates the need for local installation and storage, as users can log in and access the program from any web browser.

Desktop GIS is installed directly onto a computer and all data is stored on that computer’s hard drive.

This means the program can only be accessed on that specific computer.

To transfer or share data from a desktop GIS, it must be exported to a shareable file type, moved to an external hard drive, or printed.

an ipad and iphone displaying Mobile GIS

As a general rule, online GIS software makes mobile usage more accessible. Many platforms have native iOS or Android applications, and those that don’t can still be accessed via mobile web browser.

Some desktop GIS platforms do have mobile add-ons; however, they tend to be less developed and often require additional purchase.

In terms of payment, most online GIS is subscription based, meaning users pay on a monthly or annual basis. As they are a recurring expense, online GIS is usually considered an operational expenditure.

Desktop GIS software involves purchasing a one-time perpetual license. As such, desktop GIS software is generally considered a capital expenditure.

To dive right into online GIS software, skip to the next section.

Online GIS software comparison

Online GIS software is cloud-based, which offers a few distinct advantages over locally-based desktop platforms:

  • Simple data sharing
  • Quicker communication
  • Real-time updates

Additionally, online GIS is a much newer technology: meaning it benefits from a modern approach to software.

Below we explore three popular online GIS options, all of which offer a more user-friendly experience than their desktop counterparts.

Rather than exist in perfect fidelity with desktop GIS, online GIS software can often complement these platforms: offering a way to capture and share data where there otherwise was none.

Online GIS was built to streamline map making and open data management to everyone.

As such, many of these platforms are quite simple when compared to popular desktop solutions. This simplicity is a significant upside for many, as online platforms provide the GIS tools they need without unnecessary extras.

Each platform below is subscription based, offering various tiers of service. Organizations can choose the level of service they need at a lower upfront investment, upgrading only as necessary.

unearth logo

Name: OnePlace™ Field
Cloud & Mobile
$49 user/mo (14-day free trial)
Best for:
Simple map making, real-time collaboration, field data capture
Mobile capable:
Yes, iOS and Android apps available

Summary: With OnePlace Field, you can create and share maps in minutes, map spreadsheets and other documents, collect data with ease, and store everything in one place. Unearth’s lightest, simplest solution boosts productivity with intuitive data capture and sharing on a dynamic, geospatial platform. Plus, offline mode, automatic syncing, and unlimited cloud storage ensures field work moves ahead without delay.

Features include:

  • Map annotation, including flexible drawing and measuring tools
  • Automatic geo-location of photos and videos
  • Simple forms for data collection
  • Data layering for blueprints, aerial surveys, topography, and more
  • Offline mode to enable field work
  • In-app communication
GIS cloud logo

Name: GIS Cloud
Type: Cloud
Price: $15-95 user/mo
Best for: Data collection, data management, map editing and sharing
Mobile capable: Yes, with purchase of Mobile Data Collection

Summary: GIS Cloud was created to promote team collaboration and improve organizational workflow through a scalable, cloud-based software suite. Product offerings include mobile data collection, map viewer, map editor, and map portal. Each product is purchased separately, but can be combined depending on organizational needs. According to the GIS Cloud website, their mission is to “build a collaborative mapping platform for users of all profiles.”

Additional add-ons include:

  • GIS Cloud On-Premises (installing a local version)
  • A crowdsourcing extension
  • Publisher for ArcMaps (for transferring maps from ArcGIS)
mangomap logo

Name: MangoMap
Type: Cloud
Price: $49-$399/mo | $470-3830/yr
Best for: Simple online map making
Mobile capable: Via web browser

Summary: MangoMap provides simple online mapping and data management. With spatial analysis tools and support for all major spatial file formats, this platform is a solid alternative to desktop GIS platforms. One factor that makes MangoMap an especially attractive option for small businesses is the emphasis on simplicity. Users report a much lower learning curve when compared to desktop GIS systems. MangoMap also allows for personalization of the mapping application itself, as well as brand integration - though, removal of MangoMap branding does require an Enterprise level subscription.

How online GIS can benefit your entire organization

Online GIS has two primary benefits: simplification of GIS workflows and streamlined data sharing.

Using online GIS, either alone or in tandem with a legacy GIS software, opens the potential to increase communication, collaboration, and efficiency throughout your organization.

Online GIS can benefit your organization, even if you already have a desktop solution.

Implementing online GIS gives everyone from executives to GIS specialists the ability to access and share data more effectively.

an owner leveraging Mobile GIS


Online GIS provides an easily accessible project overview.

For folks in leadership, an online GIS dashboard offers the ability to gauge project progress and make informed decisions concerning resource allocation, personnel management, and next steps.

Depending on how the team is organized, leadership can either check in quickly with little to no engagement, or make notes and comments directly within the software.

office staff reviewing field work with Mobile GIS

Office staff

From simple map making, to field team management, to QA/QC review - office staff are responsible for a wide variety of tasks.

The primary benefits for office staff are real-time updates and the ability to make notes and comments within the software. This streamlines communication with the field and allows office staff to review data in real-time.

Office staff can assign tasks directly, make maps for their crews, and monitor progress as it’s happening.

field crews inspecting a cross bore with Mobile GIS

Field crews

Online GIS allows crews to capture data in the field, a capability that is actually quite rare in the world of GIS.

The traditional data collection method involves printing out large paper maps, annotating by hand, manually transferring data into a GIS or other system, and then exporting deliverables to a PDF or external hard drive.

With online GIS crews make map annotations in the field and associate photos and videos to a specific location on the map. This helps to improve collaboration with the office, streamline field workflows, and prevent re-work.

a GIS specialist accessing asset data with Mobile GIS

GIS specialist

For GIS specialists, the ability to collect and share data easily is the primary benefit of online GIS.

When field crews use online GIS to collect data onsite, GIS specialists can engage with it almost instantly: increasing overall efficiency.

Online GIS empowers GIS specialists to easily share GIS maps and data, including Shapefiles, throughout the organization: rather than relying on hard drives, PDFs, or paper.

The future of online GIS

As online GIS has evolved, questions have arisen about the future of the industry.

  • Is it possible to create a cloud-based GIS with the same functionality as desktop?
  • If so, is that the goal?
  • Will cloud-based GIS replace desktop GIS?

There are no clear cut answers. The GIS industry is massive and technological innovation is happening at breakneck speed, making accurate predictions difficult.

For the moment, our argument is this:

  • Yes, it’s likely possible to create an online GIS with the same functionality a desktop GIS
  • Perfect fidelity is not the goal
  • Cloud-based GIS will not replace desktop GIS
multiple map layers

Perfect fidelity is not the goal

Consider a mid-size sedan and an RV.

You can drive point A to point B with either option. However, there's a significant difference in functionality and overall experience.

The sedan was built for (and excels at) everyday tasks: commuting, grabbing groceries, and the occasional weekend trip. The engine functions well and gets you where you need to go.

On the other hand, the RV has everything you need for life on the road: beds, kitchen, bathroom, etc. It excels at long road trips, but commuting to work everyday would be impractical.

Both options fall under the same general category (vehicles), but they’re built for different tasks.

You wouldn’t take the sedan on an extended road trip, nor would you take the RV to go buy milk. Both vehicles can theoretically complete both tasks, but neither situation would be ideal.

This same concept applies to desktop and online GIS. They fall under the same category, but were built to achieve different goals.

Cloud-based GIS will not replace desktop GIS

For decades the definition of GIS has remained fairly narrow: dominated by a few powerhouse programs.

Desktop GIS software excels in data visualization and analysis, but falls flat when it comes to mobile capabilities, data sharing, and ease-of-use.

For field crews, it makes data capture cumbersome and transfer slow. For office staff, they either rely on a GIS specialist to get the maps they need, or cobble together a system using point solutions.

For GIS specialists, the problem is two-fold.

Not only is it difficult to share data throughout the organization, but they are often inundated with smaller, time-consuming requests: pulling them away from more specialized work.

Online GIS expands the definition of GIS: democratizing data and opening maps to all.

With online GIS, field teams can collect data quickly and the office can process and review in real-time. GIS specialists gain greater access to data, and can quickly share maps and visualizations.

At best, desktop GIS and online GIS complement the same goals. At worst, they achieve different goals.

Defining the needs of your organization will help you decide which option, or combination of the two, will best address your needs.


Online GIS is redefining the field of GIS as a whole.

Used as a standalone GIS software, or to complement an existing desktop GIS, online GIS provides significant value to any organization working with location-based data.

To learn more about the definition of GIS, mapping, data, or desktop GIS software - be sure to check out the other installments in this series.

Get started in GIS by mapping the data you already have - spreadsheets, photos, and more - with a 14-day free trial.

four different maps within mobile GIS software