My Love-hate Relationship with ArcGIS

Posted to Software  |  Nathan Yau

Housing BurdenArcGIS can do a lot for you in terms of speeding up the mapping process, which is great, but here’s my dilemma: do I really want to put in all the time to figure out how to use the software?

I think the basics is good enough for me and any further than that, I’ll let a mapping expert take over. However, I know that spatial analysis is something I’m going to pursue, so… I’m really back and forth.

On the one hand, ArcGIS has a lot of functions, but on the other hand, it’s not especially easy to use all those functions. For example, I was doing a join between two data tables, but it wasn’t working at first because the column on one table didn’t have leading zeros (e.g. 1 instead of 01). By “not working” I don’t mean that columns weren’t joining. I mean that I couldn’t select this column and that column to join by, so I couldn’t even get to the step where I knew I had to change something. It’s little things like that that bug me and make me think that ArcGIS is inflexible.

Plus, it sure does like to crash.

I don’t know.

I probably just need more experience. How about this. I’ll just learn what I have to, but I’m not going to go out of my way to become an ArcMap expert. Yeah, that sounds OK to me.

And on that note, here’s the map I made. Color scale was the main thing I had to fuss with. Too many shades of gray lead to a muddled graphic in the paper even if it looks fine on screen. The map shows the percentage of people who spend 30% or more of their household income on housing. Of course, California leads the way.


  • Hang in there man. I spent 3 years trying to learn that program (a long time ago). Very frustrating. But in the end, when you know it well, pretty cool (and powerful).

    I ended up using ArcInfo a lot as well. Sort of a cut-down version with a more intuitive interface.

  • Just curious: is this a general design hint for choropleth maps, that you need just a few different colors for print, but you can have more on screen? I’d never heard that before (though it sounds plausible).

  • Yeah, I guess the rule could be generalized. I mean in either case — paper or print — you won’t want to use too many shades since the eye can only see so much, you know? Although, admittedly, I’m just going off what my editor told me.

    From a quick Google, there seems to be a lot of theory on the topic of color picking…


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