ArcGIS StoryMaps

Crafting conservation stories — protecting our planet, one story at a time

A 3D animated version of the Earth's land areas with an intricate mosaic representing thousands of ecosystems
A globe of the Earth's land areas representing thousands of ecosystems. Explore an interactive version of the map in the Diversity of Life Atlas.

Happy Earth Day!

Esri and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) co-hosted the 2023 ArcGIS StoryMaps Competition, which challenged storytellers globally to create stories about conserving the Earth’s lands and waters. On December 7, 2023, Esri announced the competition winners in two tracks, along with special award winners.

For the Crafting Conservation Stories Series, Esri’s StoryMaps team sat down with the 2023 competition winners for the “story behind each story.”

Read some highlights from the interviews below.


Four photos from the winning competition stories
Read the Crafting Conservation Stories Series for storytelling best practices and advice.

Great stories inspire

The StoryMaps team spends a whole lot of time searching for, reading, and then sharing your stories. Why? OK, we admit it — we have a thing for storytelling. But there’s something more important at play.

Every year, we interview our competition winners. And every year, we ask “What advice would you give other storytellers?” Without fail, we consistently hear the same answer: Check out what other storytellers are doing!

To help you do that, we maintain the ArcGIS StoryMaps gallery: a curated selection of exemplary stories, briefings, and collections by storytellers from around the world, with new content rotated in regularly to keep the experience fresh. Filter the gallery to find content by topic, product feature, and more, or just browse through some beautiful examples. It’s no coincidence that so many of our competition award winners appreciate the opportunity to explore, get inspired by, and pick up best practices from what’s already out there; Katie Gaut and Mark Thompson of Blue Water GIS, who worked on the story that captured the top prize in one of the competition tracks, are no exception.

A map of dolphin movements over time

We recommend a regular browse through the ArcGIS StoryMaps gallery...There’s so much amazing inspiration out there to spark the next great story!

Katie Gaut and Mark Thompson Blue Water GIS

Looking for even more stories and resources? No problem — we’ve got you covered. Last year, The StoryMaps team launched StoryScape, a digital magazine celebrating place-based storytelling. Each monthly issue covers a different theme and includes a featured story and storyteller, additional topical stories, and, as a bonus, related blog posts and embedded ArcGIS content to support your GIS and storytelling journey.

Visit the StoryScape home page and find an issue that inspires you.


Less is more

If you’ve tried ArcGIS StoryMaps, you already know this. The builder is intuitive, fun, and a good entry point to GIS.

The “telling a story” part of storytelling, on the other hand, offers a few more challenges.

The recent interview comments mirror what we hear from you in workshops, events, and one-on-one discussions. You are excited about your stories. There’s just so much content and so much to say. It’s not easy to narrow it down into a multi-media narrative that engages an audience from start to finish.

Students gather sonar data during their field work off the coast of Washington State

One of our main goals has always been to engage the people who are most impacted by our work. Between collecting side-scan sonar data, GPS coordinates, and information about the species within the derelict crab pots, it felt like we were drowning in data!

Ella Ashford and Riley Forth Willamette University

We like the approach that Ella Ashford and Riley Forth took to manage their overwhelming volume of content as they put together the winning student story in one of the tracks. They strategically leveraged the interactive blocks in ArcGIS StoryMaps, in this case sidecar, to display similar information sequentially, as snapshots.


Recovering Lost Crab Pots of the Salish Sea uses the sidecar block throughout the story to reveal maps and media slowly with related narrative text
Recovering Lost Crab Pots of the Salish Sea uses the sidecar block throughout the story to reveal maps and media slowly with related narrative text.

Other storytellers often begin with a simple content outline like the one described in Planning and outlining your story: How to set yourself up for success, our most widely-read ArcGIS StoryMaps blog post.


Local voices drive engaging content

An Indigenous community member involved in the Amazon Conservation Team's community mapping initiatives

The communities are the protagonists...that's the key part.

Brian Hettler Amazon Conservation Team
A map of Columbia with five communities highlighted through custom pins on the map
The Living Territories story combines a map with community photos to place people on the land.

Last year, Esri combined the annual ArcGIS StoryMaps Competition and Tribal ArcGIS StoryMaps Competition into one larger storytelling contest to recognize the critical role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation, science, and sustainability efforts.

And the winning stories reflect local perspectives in the narrative, maps, and media.

In Living Territories, the Amazon Conservation Team frames the story of conservation, local communities, and land rights by placing custom graphics of community members literally on the map.

The central role of local communities continues throughout the narrative and the multi-media elements, including photos, audio clips, and quotes.


A community snapshot from Living Territories
The Living Territories story includes engaging photos of communities and landscapes.

The thoughtful and comprehensive multi-media portrait reflects the Amazon Conservation Team’s extensive work with communities over time.

Brian Hettler, mapping director at Amazon Conservation Team, shares: “The maps provide a common language and place for sharing stories, facilitating communication within the communities and helping to bridge cultural divides between elders and young Indigenous peoples, or between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”


Maps — and supporting features — take the lead

In the Crafting Conservation Stories interviews, we asked each competition winner to share their favorite feature in the ArcGIS StoryMaps builder. Every storyteller mentioned maps, especially ArcGIS StoryMaps features for sharing map content.

From tree growth to dolphin identification, several stories use map tour in innovative ways.

A close up of white bark pine

The trees are an essential part of the ecosystem on the traditional lands of the CSKT. The explorer map tour helped us depict caging cones, starting seeds, and growing forests.

-Mike Durglo Jr. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation (CKST)

Others use map actions to offer readers extra story content through a few simple links.

In Ambassadors of the Amazon, Blue Water GIS presented dolphin habitat shifts over time with map actions.

Katie Gaut of Blue Water GIS explains: “Through map actions, readers can interact with the story directly to view male or female movements within their shared habitat. Map actions encourage reader engagement and provide some ‘choose your own adventure’ avenues.”


Petr Zálešák — doctoral student and author of Wind Erosion — offers some of the best storytelling advice for new authors:

“The most important advice is to begin and do your best to create your own story. Sometimes, the biggest challenge is taking the first step.”

Thank you to Petr and all our competition winners for your personal stories and advice. Read their interviews in the Crafting Conservation Stories Series as you prepare for the 2024 ArcGIS StoryMaps Competition — which will be announced at the Esri 2024 User Conference.

Esri and IUCN logos side by side

About the authors

Michelle Thomas is a communications lead and content strategist on Esri's StoryMaps team. She manages the annual ArcGIS StoryMaps competition, digital platforms, and storytelling campaigns that feature storytellers globally. Prior to joining Esri, Michelle created digital campaigns at the U.S. Interior Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture. She leveraged Esri's storytelling tools at both agencies, tying people, resources, and places together through stories. She joined Esri's StoryMaps team to share those experiences widely and empower storytellers to tell stories that matter.


Will (he/him) is a Senior Content Specialist on the StoryMaps editorial team. A yinzer born and bred, he is an aficionado of two-lane road trips, Minor League Baseball, malt-forward beer, or any combination thereof.

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