The Story Behind the Map: 2021 Virginia AGO Contest

In collaboration with Esri (Environmental Systems Research Institute) Education, the Virginia Geographic Alliance is coordinating the 2021 Virginia Map contest based on the theme, “What’s in my watershed?”.  Showcase the work of your students as they use the resources of an Esri Organizational Account to create a Story Map Journal or Web App to communicate their interpretation of the theme.


  • Pre-collegiate registered in grade 4 -12
    • Middle School (grades 4 -8)*
    • High School Grades (9 -12)
  • Students in public, non-public, and home schools within Virginia
    • Entries must come from a recognized school or homeschool even if the students work on the entries in an out-of-school club
    • Each school can submit up to five (5) entries total
  • Students can work as individuals or in teams of two

*If a middle school student and a high school student collaborate on an entry, it will be classified as a high school submission.

Entries should go beyond the descriptive and analyze, interpret, and present data via an ArcGIS web app or story map. Student-created story maps or web apps, must focus on content aligned with the theme and located within the Commonwealth of Virginia. Entries should be analytical in nature, map-centric rather than photo-centric or relying on too much text.

[See "How to Use Analysis Tools" for refresher training, if needed]

State Competition Theme

The organizing question for this year’s competition is “What’s in my watershed?” The theme is broad enough to encompass a variety of disciplines and multiple perspectives of the area encompassed by the anchoring geographic area– statewide or local watershed.

Students can research and explore a variety of topics of the chosen geographic area: geological characteristics, flora and fauna, environmental issues facing Virginia and their local communities, historical events, famous personalities and leaders, demographic characteristics, economic activities, the cultural landscape and more. The geographic focus of the student-created products must be located within the Commonwealth of Virginia.


Entry Requirements

  1. Competition registration. Registration for the competition provides the committee with a rough estimate of the number of entries that will need to be judged.
  2. Entries must be from an ArcGIS Online Organizational account. (Any US K-12 school can request a free online organizational account from Esri request for free and ArcGIS School/Club Bundle.
  3. Entries must be an ArcGIS Online web app or story map (classic) or story map (new).
  4. Entries must be aligned with the competition theme of what’s in my watershed and focus on information within today’s borders of the Commonwealth of Virginia
  5. Completed entry form for each product must be submitted by midnight Friday,  May 7, 2021. Entries received after the deadline will not be judged.



Winners of the Virginia Competition

  • An award of $100 to the top five middle school teams and the top five high school teams.
  • The winning teams will be notified by Monday, May 17, 2021.
  • Only one team from each division will be submitted to the national competition.

Scoring: Overall, we look for a clear focus/topic/question/story, good and appropriate data, effective analysis, good cartography, effective presentation, and complete documentation.

(Point Value) Criteria

(5) Topic clearly identified Topic focuses on state theme. Featured content is within Virginia borders
(10) Presentation Overall presentation within the map product is effective in informing about the topic
(20) Effective cartography Cartography is effective in composition, visualization, and interplay of layers (display scale, transparency, classification, symbolization, popups, charts, tables, labels, filtering legend appearance) facilitates the viewer’s grasp of individual elements of the topic and story
(20) Data Data used is appropriate—engages and adequate volume and array of clearly significant elements5 points are reserved for reward creation, documentation, and inclusion of one’s own data (0 = none, 1 = little/weak, 2 =some/modest, 3 = satisfactory, 4 = much/good, 5 = most/excellent)
(20) geographic analysis Geographic analysis (classification, filtering, geoanalysis) is evident, appropriate, and effective. The product includes more than uniform dots/lines/areas. The product includes more than pictures.
(25) Documentation in the item details page is clear and complete All non-original content (including images) in the product are appropriately referenced and/or linked so their sources are clear Original content is described and/or linked Identifies processes used to analyze the content Any persons who assisted in the product are specified, including stating no one provided assistance


Design/Judging Criteria

  1. Account: Entries must be from an ArcGIS Online Organization account.
  2. Login: Entries must be visible without requiring a login. Entries using “premium data” (log-in required such as the Living Atlas) must set up the display to permit access without needing a log in. See procedures here.
  3. Originality: Entries must be “original work by students,” but may use data generated by outside persons or institutions with guidelines of “fair use.” Students are encouraged to use appropriate professionally generated data, but the integration, treatment, and presentation must be original.
  4. Visual Supports: Because this is meant to be a “map-centric” exploration, analysis, and presentation of a geographic phenomenon, “non-map visuals” (images and videos) are limited to
    • total up to 60 seconds of video, and
    • total up to two images not created by the project author (e.g. 1 historic portrait photo plus 1 historic landscape photo), and
    • total up to five images created by the project author (replication of project maps as smaller/thumbnail images, and items visible as popups within interactive maps, do not count against these limits).
  5. Short URL: Entries must provide two links in “short URL” format (e.g.,

a. One link to the “display” page, (story map or web app)

b. The other link opens the “item details” page. A link to the item details page will require will require a login if the Org does not permit anonymous access and the link uses the form :<my_org>;” to work around this, change the link to the form of “” before creating a short URL. Ad hoc short URLs can be generated at

Project Tips

  • Look at previous national winners and honorable mention projects. This is a “map competition.” Entries should be analytical in nature, map-centric rather than photo-centric or relying on too much text. Use of videos or static images generated by anyone other than the team members must be carefully documented, and such media should be used sparingly; outside content generally detracts in national judging. The project must emphasize student work; professionally generated GIS data generally does not detract from national scores this way. A good way to judge project balance quickly is to identify the amount of time a viewer would spend consuming the entire project; map-based time and attention should be at least two thirds.
  • Good projects gently help even a viewer unfamiliar with the region know quickly the location of the project focus. Requiring a viewer to zoom out several times to determine the region of focus detracts from the viewing experience. (Pretend the viewer is from a different part of the country, or a different country.)
  • Maps should invite interactive exploration by the viewer, not be static (“images”). The presentation should hold the attention of the viewer from start to finish.
  • Maps should demonstrate “the science of where” — the importance of location, patterns, and relationships between layers. There is an art to map design; too much data may feel cluttered, but showing viewers only one layer at a time may limit the viewers’ easy grasp of relationships.
  • Care should be taken to make “popups” useful, limited to just the relevant information. They should add important information, and be formatted to make the most critical information be easily consumed. These popups can include formatted text, key links, images, data presented in charts, and so forth.

Winners of the National Competition

If circumstances permit holding the 2021 Esri Education Summit as a physical public event, and if circumstances permit national awardees attending, Esri will provide a travel grant to one HS team and one MS team, each team consisting of the student(s) and at least one parent/guardian (could be teacher/rep). Awardee teams must agree to attend the Esri Education Summit (“EdUC”), arriving by 10am PT Sat July 10, and staying through at least 4pm PT Tue July 13, 2021. Awardees will be responsible for handling any tax implications, be personally identified including name and photograph, and post a graphic in the Esri User Conference (“UC”) Map Gallery on Mon. Awardees will be recognized at EdUC and UC Map Gallery on Mon, and may have additional attention.


Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

  1. Schools should consider issues around exposing PII. See for strategies for minimizing PII. Teachers should help students minimize exposure of their own PII and that of others, including in map, image, and text.
  2. For the state competition each school will submit the entry using only the first name and last initial of the students. Judges will see only the finished product without identifying student information. The information will be kept confidential by the state competition committee administrators.
  3. The winners of the state competition will be notified and provide authorization to disclose the information as stated below.
  4. States must help potential entrants understand the level of PII required. Entries submitted to Esri for the top national prize (i.e. 1-HS and 1-MS) must agree in advance to expose student names, school names, and school city/state (homeschool students would be identified to closest city/town name).
  5. Esri will not seek, collect, or accept student names for any entrants other than the national prize entrants (1-HS and 1-MS per state). These and only these will have names exposed by Esri. State winners will need to submit a permission form to the Virginia competition committee.


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