Online GIS

Introduction to Online GIS

Dive deep into GIS with Chapters 1-4:
What is GIS | GIS Mapping | GIS Data | GIS Software

Chapter 4: GIS Software explored a variety of popular desktop GIS options, both commercial (paid) and open-source (free).

For decades, desktop GIS defined the history and trajectory of the GIS industry. Having grown considerably in both functionality and popularity: desktop GIS serves as a solid foundation for future innovation.

Online GIS will help define this future, ushering the start of a new chapter.

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

Online GIS software expands the definiton of GIS as a whole.

Some may argue that, because online GIS offers different functionality than desktop GIS, it shouldn’t be considered GIS at all. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Remember, as a concept, GIS is the intersection of data and location. As a software, GIS provides tools for organizing and visualizing geospatial data.

We’ll start this chapter by considering the differences between online and desktop GIS. Then we’ll explore the online GIS software available today.

At the end, we’ll consider the ways in which online GIS can benefit your organization as a whole, as well as the the future of this exciting, emergent technology.

Online GIS vs Desktop GIS

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

web browsers

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

This type of platform is cloud-hosted, which means that both the program itself and any associated GIS data is managed offsite on the vendors 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 computer

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 out.

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

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

In terms of payment, most online GIS is subscription based, so payments are made on a monthly or annual basis. As they are a recurring expense, online GIS is usually 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 an online GIS software comparison, skip to the next section.

Online GIS
Desktop GIS
desktop computer
*Different platforms offer different tools. This table offers a very basic overview.
✔ Simple map making

✔ Geospatial data visualizations

✔ Tools for asset and project management
✔ Complex data visualizations

✔ In-depth data analysis and validation

✔ 3D data rendering
✔ Lower cost upfront

✔ Pay only for what you need

✔ No additional hardware purchase

✔ Predictable operating expense
✔ Initial investment is significantly more expensive

✔ Additional hardware may be required, increasing overall cost
✔ User friendly interface

✔ Little to no training required

✔ Reliant on internet connection

✔ Continuous software updates from the vendor
✔ More processing power for complex rendering and analysis

✔ Does not require internet connection

✔ Not reliant on outside servers
Data Storage & Sharing
✔ Easily add storage as needed

✔ More reliable data backup and recovery

✔ Increasing storage capacity can increase subscription cost
✔ All data is stored onsite

✔ Data is more siloed, making it difficult to share with the larger organization

✔ Increasing storage capacity can sometimes require additional servers
✔ Vendor is responsbile for information security✔ Organization is responsible for information security
✔ Increases mobile accessibility

✔ Some vendors only provide mobile applications for one operating system (iOS or Android)
✔ Lower overall mobile accessibility

✔ Mobile functionality requires additional purchase

Additional resources
Cloud vs On-Premise Solutions: The Pros and Cons
Cloud ERP vs On-Premise ERP

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 the map making process 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
Custom plans
Best forMobile capable
Data management, asset management, simple map makingYes, iOS and Android apps available

Built to simplify location-based data management and designed for built-world industries, Unearth’s OnePlace platform is GIS simplified.

The intuitive user interface means anyone can get started in minutes.

Features include:

Native mobile apps for both iOS and Android, make data capture and sharing simple.

There are three different subscriptions options: Core, Pro, and Enterprise.

GIS Cloud logo
GIS CloudCloud$15-95 user/mo
Best forMobile capable
Field data collection, data management, map editing and sharingYes, with purchase of Mobile Data Collection

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 transfering maps from ArcGIS)

MangoMap logo
Best forMobile capable
Simple online map makingNo

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.

Remember, streamlined data sharing is one of main benefits of online GIS.

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


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

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

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.

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.

Moreover, online GIS empowers GIS specialists to easily transfer and share desktop GIS maps (including Shapefiles) throughout the organization, rather than relying on paper print-outs, PDFs, and external hard drives.

The Future of Online GIS

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

  • Will cloud-based GIS replace desktop GIS?

  • Is it possible to create a cloud-based GIS with the same functionality as desktop?

  • If so, is that the goal?

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:

  • No, cloud-based GIS will not replace desktop GIS

  • Yes, it’s likely possible to create an online GIS with the exact same functionality a desktop GIS

  • But no, a perfect replica is not the goal

Cloud-based GIS will not replace desktop GIS

For decades the definition of GIS has remained fairly narrow: confined to a few powerhouse programs that, while unarguably valuable, have serious limitations.

Online GIS is expanding the definition of GIS.

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

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

For the GIS specialist, the problem is two-fold. Not only is it difficult to share data throughout the organization, but they are often inundated with smaller requests: pulling them away from more specialized work.

Online GIS democratizes data: opening the benefits of GIS to everyone.

It helps field teams collect data quickly and speeds up processing and review in the office. It allows the GIS specialist to, not only gather data quickly, but efficiently share maps and visualizations throughout the organization.

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 a combination of the two, will best address your needs.

Perfect fidelity is not the goal

Consider the differences between a mid-size sedan and an RV.

Either options allows you to drive from point A to point B. That said, the difference in functionality and overall experience is significant.

The sedan was built for, and excels at, everyday tasks like commuting, grabbing groceries, and taking 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.

While both options fall under the same general category (vehicles), 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.


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

Employed as a stand alone GIS software, or as a complement to exisiting 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.

Or try online GIS for yourself with a free 14 day trial of Unearth’s OnePlace.