I am endeavouring to convince others in my organisation that GIS tools, in particular digitising tools, CAN be used by the general public, and we should promote their use instead of using paper maps. This would save money (postal fees) and time (the time it takes to post maps) and I suppose it's better for the environment (not using paper).

The counterargument is that people feel more at home with a pen/pencil and sketch out areas/polygons etc on a paper map, they also tend to be more accurate. My business requires applicants to be fairly accurate in sketching out boundaries against a background map.

What do you think I can do to persuade those disbelievers?

How can we improve sketching tools for non-GIS users so they make accurate sketches on maps?

What tips/techniques do you know of, have you faced this problem yourself?

Are we doomed to using paper maps forever more?

The GIS application is likely to be web-based and open to the general public. Probable tech would be ArcGIS JavaScript API - with cached up, optimised map services, sensible scale levels and clear symbology etc.

6 Answers 6


Is it really necessary to oppose both solutions, and choose between them?

Some users feel better with paper, some others with a GIS. It depends on their skills, what they need to do, if they have a computer (with Internet), their mood, and certainly many other implicit factors we cannot guess.

My advice: try to convince that both solutions should be proposed to the users, see which one they use, how much it costs, and the answer to your question will emerge from their usage !


As other people have said, I don't think that you can rule out either case. I think that the solution depends on:

  1. The users. Are they comfortable with the tech or not.
  2. The Use case. Are they in the field in an area without network connectivity or not conducive to bringing expensive tech.
  3. The solution/app are people still building ArcMap on a Web page for non GIS users, or is it Googley simple?

One interesting solution from the OpenStreetMap community that combines analog and digital tech is WalkingPapers. You use a Web map to zoom to the area of interest and then print out a paper map that contains a '3D barcode'. You then draw your features on the paper copy and send it to whoever wants it. This person then scans the paper and then uploads it to a server where it is automatically georeferenced based on the data in the barcode. A person can then pull up the georeferenced image in the online OSM editor Potlatch and trace the new features.

This solution has OpenStreetMap baked into it, but this same concept could be applied to a stand-along app (OpenSource or proprietary).


I think the winner between on screen digitizing and sketching on a piece of paper depends a lot. It is possible to make a lot more precise and accurate digitizing on screen than on paper with the right background maps and the right tools. But I understand what you mean by saying that it tends to be more precise on paper.

To get the good accuracy on screen, demands good tools for zooming and maybe changing background map during digitizing. Smart snapping functionality will probably help too. As I understand it you are dealing with a public audience that maybe only will use this tool once or twice. So the hard thing will be to make those tools more or less self-instructing and very easy to use. If the digitizing will be made with static zooming without snapping it will probably be a quite rough sketch and the sketch on paper arguments gets stronger.

So, my point is that finding very easy to use but powerful tools for helping in digitizing is needed. To make the tool easy to use enough they will probably need to be designed for just that use case, like the snapping tool shall snap to relevant background data and maybe prioritize if multiple snapping possibilities.

I also think the zooming part is quite important. Maybe the closer up tiles should be loaded before needed so it is possible to zoom in and out during digitizing smooth and fast without waiting for some downloading in the background.


I am not sure if the impact on the environmnet would be less with using an online application. Based on my own experiance people will likely print out the digital version, draw their design on the paper then replicate it on the digital map.

How many users are we talking about? In our company of about 120, I usually send people a PDF map then let them use whatever tools they want to draw the features on the map. Some use the tools in Acrobat, others like to print the map out, draw features on the copy then scan to PDF and e-mail. Doing it this way creates less work for me as i don't need to scan them on my end. (also no money spent on postage). Images that come back contain comments and drawn features and the format is PDF so I simply convert to image in Arobat and geo-reference and digitize. This takes little time and is fairly accurate since i am geo-referencing to same data.

Of course having 100's of users submitting data this way would not be realistic. An online application, training and regular workshops to maintain standards would be necessary.


In case the application end users would use is a map viewer inserted in a web browser (OpenLayers, ESRI Javascript API... even Flash based), I would give the following arguments:

  • Many people is already used to tools - or at least environments - like these (Google Maps, for instance).
  • End users do not have to install any new application: just a modern web browser is needed. There is no need to download any application, no DLL hell...

Besides, I would find success stories of web based map GIS systems used by general public in your country. I live in northwest Spain, and here there are some web based GIS systems that are very used by general public like SIGPAC, SITGA or Bantegal.


Maybe we need digitizing tutor websites analogous to the many typing tutor sites. Typing is also a hurdle for many in the general public.

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