Georeferencing and Digitizing Map Images in ArcGIS Pro

Geospatial data is often acquired from imagery that is remotely sensed by airplanes and space satellites. The process of measuring and interpreting images to extract geospatial data is called photogrammetry.

While there are a growing variety of techniques and software packages that can perform photogrammetry to partially automate the capture of two-dimensional and three-dimensional features from images with minimal direct intervention, there are still often occasions where you may need to manually digitize vector features based on contemporary remotely sensed raster imagery or historic paper maps. You can then symbolize these features according to your mapping needs.

This tutorial covers five basic steps for digitizing features from photographic or map images:

  1. Acquire the Image
  2. Georeference the Image
  3. Create a New Feature Class
  4. Digitize the Features
  5. Publish the Features
  6. Save Your Project Package

Acquire the Image

The example image is a historic map of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, commonly referred to as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The map was created by cartographer George Cram and published in a commemorative atlas of the fair.

This image was downloaded from the David Rumsey Map Collection. The video below shows how to download and unzip a map from that collection.

The The Big10 Geoportal is another good source for historic maps.

For specific states, many state historical societies have digital collections and you can Google name_of_state historical society to find those sites.

If your map contains a border and/or marginalia that you do not want in your map, open the image in Paint and crop to show only the desired area.

Downloading a Map From the David Rumsey Map Collection

Georeference the Image

While human eyes can interpret an image, most image files do not contain enough information for software to be able to figure out where the image is located on the surface of the earth and map it accordingly.

Using an image as a map layer in ArcGIS Pro requires a step called georeferencing where locations on the map (control points) are marked as located at specific latitudes and longitudes. The software then stretches (transforms) the image to align with locations on the ground.

Note that geoferencing is different from geocoding, which is the process of converting addresses into latitudes and longitudes.

  1. Create a project with a new map.
  2. Add Data the image you will be georeferencing. This may take a few seconds depending on the size of the image. The image will appear in the Contents pane, but will not be visible in the correct location because ArcGIS Pro doesn't have clear information on where it is supposed to be located.
  3. Select the image layer in the Contents pane, select the Imagery tab, and click Georeference.
  4. Click Set SRS and choose Geographic Coordinate System -> World -> WGS 1984.
  5. Zoom into the approximate area where the image or map is supposed to be located.
  6. Click the Fit To Display button. The map image should appear in the center of the screen, although it will not be correctly aligned with the base map.
  7. Select the Raster -> Appearance tab and turn the transparency up to 50% so you can see the base map under the image.
  8. Go back to the Georeference tab and under Transformation, select Projective. This tells ArcGIS Pro how to stretch the map, and a projective transformation often works well with historic maps that are already projected.
  9. Select Add Control Points and add control points by selecting a location on the image first, then select the matching location on the base map.
    • Try to match locations in the extreme four corners first.
    • Zoom in as close as possible so your control points are as accurate as possible.
    • When trying to align street intersections, aim for the centers of the intersections.
    • Look around the map to make sure things align as expected. Add additional points as needed to align the map as closely as possible to the base map.

    • If you make a mistake the controls on the Georeferencing tab in the Review section can be used to select, move, or delete control points.
  10. When you are done and feel your image is well aligned with the base map, click Save to save the changes to the image.
  11. Click Save -> Save as New. This will save the georeferenced image to a GeoTIFF file. A GeoTIFF is a special kind of image file that includes spatial information indicating where the image is located on the surface of the earth. You can use the default name, but giving it a more-meaningful name can be helpful when you access this in the future.
  12. Click Close Georeference to finish georeferencing.
Georeferencing a Map Image

Create a New Feature Class

Although georeferencing creates an image that you can map directly, it does not capture individual features on the map. If you want to change the styling of those features or define attributes for features, you need to digitize the features into a feature class. While software and techniques exist to partially or fully automate this process with high-resolution aerial photographs, historic aerial images and maps like these need to be traced manually.

Creating a New Feature Class

Digitize the Features

Once the feature class has been created, you can start tracing the features.

  1. If the image you are digitizing is pixellated (blocky) and hard to read, you can make it a little more readble by selecting the layer in the Contents pane and under Appearance changing the Resampling Type to Bilinear.
  2. Select the new feature class in the Contents pane and on the Edit tab, click Features -> Create.
  3. The Create Features pane will pop up and you can select different types of drawing tools.
    • The Polygon tool is the most common with irregular areas. Click to add vertex points and then double-click on the last point to stop.
    • The rectangle tool is easiest with rectangles.
    • If you need to better align your polygon virtices, Select the feature, right-click and select Edit Vertices.
    • To modify the attributes of a feature, Select the feature, and right-click to edit Attributes, change the attributes as needed, and click Apply.
  4. When you are done tracing, on the Edit tab, click Manage Edits -> Save.
Creating New Features by Tracing

Publish the Map

All of the steps above create a georeferenced raster image and a feature class that are kept in the project geodatabase. If you are only planning on using these materials within one project, you can create maps using them directly from the project geodatabase. If you want to want to share these materials with colleagues or use them in web maps, you need to publish them to a server, in this case ArcGIS Online.

Tile Service

The georeferenced map image is a raster so it can be published as a tile service, which breaks the images into 256 x 256 map tiles that the browser or mobile map app stitches together into a complete image for the viewer. This is a technique used by Google Maps and most other web portals when creating web maps of imagery.

  1. Right-click on the image in the Contents pane and select Properties and Edit Metadata to provide source information to users.
  2. Right-click on the image in the Contents pane and select Sharing -> Share as Web Layer.
    • Give the service a meaningful name.
    • Layer Type is Tile.
    • Share with Everyone.
    • Under the Configuration tab, make sure the Tiling Scheme is ArcGIS Online / Bing Maps / Google Maps. This will publish the tiles in a web Mercator projection that can be used on web maps.
  3. When the tool completes, you should be able to create a map with the layer in ArcGIS Online.
    • Open the information page for the new tile layer.
    • Check the Settings tab and Show current tile details. ArcGIS Online may need to wait a few minutes for ArcGIS Online to build your tiles depending on how large your map is.
    • Back on the Overview page, create a new web map with Open in Map Viewer.
    • Check to make sure the layer aligns appropriately.
    • Save the map with a meaningful name.
    • Share map with the level of sharing you need.
    • Copy the link from the URL location bar if you need to send the map to someone or submit it to an instructor.
Publishing the Map Image As a Tile Service

Feature Service

The digitized vector features can be shared by publishing to a feature service.

  1. Set the metadata so users know what the data is and where it came from.
  2. Right click on the layer in Contents and select Share and Create Web Layer.
  3. The name should come in from the metadata.
  4. Share with Everyone.
  5. After the layer is published, you should be able to add the layer to a map in ArcGIS Online.
Publishing a Feature Service

Save Project Package

You should save your project as a project package to ArcGIS Online so you can open the project on another machine, and so you have a backup.

  1. Go to the Share tab and select Project.

  2. Provide a name to save the project under. The default is the name of the current project.
  3. Copy the name into the Tags and Summary fields.
  4. Click the Share outside of organization box so your project database containing your layers is included in your project package.
  5. Unclick the Include Toolboxes and Include History Items check boxes so that history or toolbox errors to not cause your upload to fail.
  6. Analyze the project to find any problems.
  7. Package the project to upload it to ArcGIS Online.
Saving a Project Package