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In ArcGIS Online, you work with geographic data through layers. Layers, also called web layers, are logical collections of geographic data that are used to create maps and scenes; they are also the basis for geographic analysis. For example, a building layer could represent a collection of campus buildings and include attributes that describe each building's properties, such as the name of the building, what type of building it is, the size of the building, and other potential attributes. Additional examples of layers include earthquake epicenters, historical traffic patterns, terrain, 3D buildings, and parcels.

Data sources

The fundamental types of data that can be displayed in a map are features and imagery. Different types of layers have different capabilities. For example, publishing data in a CSV file creates a feature layer. Feature layers give you the ability to query and edit features in client applications and manage access to the actual data.

The data used in layers comes from a variety of sources. Some data sources are native to ArcGIS—for example, ArcGIS Online hosted services and ArcGIS Server services—while others are file-based data sources (such as CSV and XLS files) or open standards data sources (such as KML and OGC).

Some web layers—such as feature layers and imagery layers—provide access to the underlying data, while others—such as tile layers and scene layers—are visualizations of the data, optimized for a particular use. You can host your data in ArcGIS Online or reference layers that reside on a GIS server. Publishing your data to ArcGIS Online allows you to host, or store, your data in ArcGIS Online by creating layers that represent this data. These layers are called hosted web layers. When you publish data as a hosted web layer, the layer contains the data. ArcGIS Online can host feature layers, tile layers, scene layers, and WFS layers.

You can also have layers that reference the data in a GIS server. For example, if you register your ArcGIS Server map service as an item, a layer that contains a reference to your map service is created. The data still resides within your map service and is not copied to ArcGIS Online.

Types of web layers

Layers represent geographic features such as points, lines, polygons, imagery, surface elevation, cell-based grids, or virtually any data feed that has location—for example, weather gauges, traffic conditions, security cameras, and tweets. The type of layer determines how you can interact with the layer's data. For example, you can view and query the data in a feature layer to see a feature's attributes. You may also be able to edit the data represented by the feature layer. With tile layers, you only see tiled images of the features.

In an ArcGIS portal, web layers are categorized by the type of data they contain—for example, elevation, feature, or imagery. This helps make the connection about what is displayed in the map. Icons also help show the type of data in the layer. The source of web layers is described on the item page.

Supported web layer types are as follows:

  • Map image Map image layer—A collection of map cartography based on vector data. Vector data includes points, lines, and polygons. Map image layers are dynamically rendered image tiles.
  • Imagery Imagery layer—A collection of map cartography based on raster data. Raster data is a grid of cells commonly used to store imagery and other information captured by remote sensing devices. Imagery layers can be displayed dynamically or prerendered as cached image tiles.
  • Tile Tile layer—A set of web-accessible tiles that reside on a server. Tile layers include prerendered map raster tiles or vector tiles.
  • Elevation layer Elevation layer—A collection of prerendered cached image tiles in the Limited Error Raster Compression format (LERC). LERC is a compression format for single-band or elevation data. Elevation layers are suitable to show terrain in scenes at global and landscape scale.
  • Feature layer Feature layer—A feature layer is a grouping of similar geographic features—for example, buildings, parcels, cities, roads, and earthquake epicenters. Features can be points, lines, or polygons (areas). Feature layers are most appropriate for visualizing data on top of your basemaps. You can set properties for feature layers—such as style, transparency, visible range, refresh interval, and labels—that control how the layer appears in the map. Using a feature layer, you can view, edit, analyze, and execute queries against features and their attributes. The contents of some feature layers can be downloaded.Streaming features Streaming features can be the source of feature layers. Feature collections are another type of feature layer.
  • Scene layer Scene layer—A collection of 3D feature objects and z-values (elevation value). A scene layer can be the following types: point point, 3D object 3D object, integrated mesh integrated mesh, or point cloud point cloud.
  • Table Table—A collection of rows and columns, where each row, or record, represents a feature—such as a parcel or power pole—and each column, or field, describes a particular attribute of the feature, such as its square footage, height, or length. Tables can include location information, such as addresses, or no location information, for example, a simple list of names and salaries. Tables are not typically drawn on the map even if they include location information.

Layers are not only data however. A layer represents both data and the visualization applied to it. Visualization can include the symbols and colors used to display the data, as well as pop-up configurations, transparency, filters, and other layer properties.

Copies of layers

It is possible to create copies of hosted web layers when you want to visualize or present the data in multiple ways. When you create a copy of a layer, the layer's configuration is copied to the new layer. Typically, the data associated with the layer is not copied; the layer maintains a reference to the data. If the data is updated, any layers referencing it will reflect the updated data. This is particularly advantageous when you have data with multiple attributes. Different layers may represent the same data but are displayed using different visualizations. Each layer could be styled based on different attributes. While the data is the same between each layer, the different styling empowers you to focus on a different story with each layer. A layer can be included in multiple web maps and web scenes, meaning configurations you've saved with the layer will be honored in any web map that includes the layer.

How layers are used

Layers are an integral component of the ArcGIS platform
Layers are an integral component of the ArcGIS platform. Your data can be referenced by multiple layers, enabling you to create different visualizations and different types of layers from the same data. You can use the same layer in multiple web maps and web scenes without having to configure the layer multiple times.

Layers are the building blocks of web maps and web scenes. Every map and scene contains a basemap layer and may also contain other layers that are drawn on top of the basemap. Basemap layers are typically used for viewing purposes or context only and are usually tile layers, map image layers, or imagery layers. The layers drawn on top of the basemap can be features or imagery and are called operational layers. Operational layers are the layers you interact with. Interactions include viewing attribution information, editing features, and performing analysis. While the visualization of the layers in a map or scene is configured on the layer, properties such as extent, visibility, and layer order are configured on the map, enabling you to control how the layer collection is displayed in the map or scene.

Maps, scenes, and layers can be managed as items in ArcGIS Online. These items are displayed on the content page, can be shared with others, and are searchable in ArcGIS Online. While many layers are available as items in ArcGIS Online, in some cases, layers are not available as items; the layer is only available in the web map containing it. For example, you can add a CSV file directly to a map. In this case, the feature layer created by adding the CSV file is only available in the map and not as a separate item.