Mapping tools vs Spatial Analysis tools, which one do I need?

Depends on what you have, how you want people to be able to interact with your data, and what argument(s) you are trying to make. A map can be used as a visualization to accompany your argument or to display your findings. Spatial Analysis tools are useful when you are making an argument from data or when your argument depends on space or how elements are related to each other on a map. Often a map illustrating your argument is all that is needed for a project. The learning curve for spatial analysis tools is high, but a researcher can ask many kinds of questions from spatial analysis and create new arguments from humanities objects of study.

Omeka Classic plugins – there are two plugins to choose from. Using one of them makes sense if you wish to create an exhibit of your items, and your items have a where.

  • Geolocation: “allows you to assign a location to items in your Omeka site. The locations are displayed on maps on individual items page and on a browsable map of all geolocated items.”
  • Neatline: “adds a digital map-making environment that makes it easy to represent geospatial information as a collection of “records” plotted on a map, which can be bound together into interactive exhibits that tell stories and make arguments.”
Story Maps

These tools are great to use if your data tells a story, or if there is an order to how you want your users to interact with your data

Knight lab’s StoryMapJS

  • Sign in with Google
  • Really straightforward


  • Must create a public account
  • It is free, but the free account is limited. If you are at a university, you can request access through the site license
  • Offers 7 templates


  • You need a Mapbox access token to use, but this is free with a Github account and the student developer pack.
  • Offers a lot of customization options
Web Mapping

Web mapping is used to create an interactive experience for users. Good to use if you want users to click on your points of interest at and have information about that point appear, but points do not need to be clicked on/explored in a certain order.


This is free if you have a Github account with the student developer pack. Just log in with your Github account to get access to Carto Builder. Builder allows you to manage data, run analysis, and design custom maps. Can output an i-frame to embed in a website


Also free with a Github student developer pack. Features customizable basemaps; can incorporate a georeferenced historic map to use as your basemap. Tons of options and customization. Can also embed in a website

ArcGIS Online

Arc allows you to create a map, style it, share it, or run analysis on your data. Like ESRI’s StoryMaps, you can use a free account, or request an account through the site license. Can embed your map in a website

Desktop software

The most powerful of the programs. These programs can perform some serious geospatial analysis. There is a steep learning curve but a high return in that geospatial analysis allows researchers to ask complex questions about space. They are used to create static maps (i.e. not interactive on a website) and process data. They can also be used to create/edit data for use in interactive web maps.


Part of ESRI’s ArcGIS suite of programs. These programs can create, edit, and analyze data, and make maps from the result. They can create high resolution static maps. You can use ArcMap for all of the geoprocessing and export to the result to either ArcGIS Online or one of the other web mapping options. Available in the DigiLab, and the GIS Lab in the Map and Government Information Library. Student licenses available from the site license administrator, but ArcMap only runs on Windows machines.


The open source answer to ArcMap. Does everything you need ArcMap for and it runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.  You can even have two different versions on your computer. QGIS uses different (free) plugins to expand functionality. One is the qgis2web plugin which will allow you to test your map as a web map and export it (you then need somewhere to host it).

We Mapped It so you Don’t Have To

For a comparison of these web tools and to help decide which mapping tool would best fit your project see our article “We mapped it so you don’t have to” in ACRL‘s Tech Connect.

For more information contact

Meagan Duever, GIS Expert