Mapping leaps and a vision for a national real estate registry

Q-and-A with GIS pioneer Donald Cooke

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Decades before Google Maps and other online mapping technologies would transform real estate search, Donald Cooke was plugging away on a U.S. Census Bureau project that would pave the way for digitalization of geographic information systems industry.

A proponent of making government information more accessible to the public, Cooke participated on a pioneering Census Bureau digital database project in the late 1960s. In 1980 he founded Geographic Data Technology Inc., a company that was contracted by the Census Bureau to digitize data sets.

Fifteen years ago, Cooke discussed advances in digital mapping and geocoding during the premier Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco.

In 2004, Cooke’s firm was acquired by Tele Atlas, a company that TomTom acquired in 2008. The company supplies data to Google Maps and to other providers of mobile and online mapping services, and also provides technology for automotive navigation systems.

Cooke now serves as community mapping evangelist for ESRI, a GIS firm based in Redlands, Calif.

He reflected on the past 15 years of technological innovation, and what’s in store, during a Q-and-A with Inman News.

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Q: What was most memorable to you about your participation in the first Real Estate Connect event, 15 years ago?

A: I was honored to be at the event and impressed that digital mapping, GIS and geocoding were recognized as subjects pertinent to the real estate industry.

 
Q: What attracted you to participate in Real Estate Connect in those early days?

A: Commercial use of geospatial technologies was starting to take off in the mid-90s and it was appealing to present at a subject-area conference as opposed to the technology-focused GIS and Business Geographics gatherings.

Q: What was most unexpected to you about how technology has transformed the real estate industry in the last 15 years, or how technology has transformed society in general?

A: The impact of the Internet and World Wide Web were surprises to me. I had used email and FTP for many years and had seen the Mosaic browser in the early 1990s. But I had no clue of the effect that Netscape would have when it rolled out about a year before the Real Estate Connect conference and the age of a commercial Web began.

I’m sometimes cast as a visionary, but I had no idea of the extent to which these technologies would change our lives. I suppose some pundits immediately envisioned sites like Wikipedia and Zillow, but it sure wasn’t me.

Q: What current technological trend is most interesting to you, and why?

A: Well, it’s really the convergence of several trends: Smartphones and iPads, cloud computing, ubiquitous high-speed connectivity, and data and applications manifesting themselves as services. I don’t think any sector of computing will be untouched by this.

Twenty years ago, if I wanted a map on my computer I would go to a portal, find and download a shapefile, and run some GIS software. Now, my smartphone reports where I am and a server somewhere in the cloud ships me a dozen little image files that assemble themselves into a map on my device.

Or the server sends a packet of vectors describing my neighborhood and software on my phone renders a 3-D image of my surroundings. The idea of software or data sets being shipped in a box is dead. It’s a new world of free or rented services.

Q: What has surprised you about things that haven’t changed as much for the real estate industry in the past 15 years? What do you believe are barriers to change, if any?

A: For me anyway, the importance of going onsite and kicking the tires won’t ever change. Plus, the opinions of experienced real estate people are invaluable, especially when transferring to a new part of the country.

I’m shopping for a house now and having an agent who grew up in town and has lived here for over 50 years is very reassuring.

Q: How has technology shaped or changed consumer behavior in the past 15 years?

A: I’m amazed at how accustomed I am to replacing technology like a smartphone every couple of years. I look back just a few years and I can’t believe I thought whatever I was using at the time was great.

Of course, the bulk of my costs go to connectivity, which makes it all the easier to keep on upgrading. It’s funny — cars last a lot longer nowadays but electronics have a useful life of 18-24 months.

Q: How has consumer behavior shaped or changed technology in the past 15 years?

A: I’ve grown to expect that the information I need for a buying decision is on the Web somewhere; I just need to find it. Some companies seem to be making this easier for me and also provide distractions and add-ons that are occasionally well thought out and welcome. They’ve recognized my buying behavior and are responding to it in very positive ways.

Q: If real estate consumers are much better informed about real estate than they were 15 years ago, why did the nation experience such a massive downturn in the real estate sector? What fatal flaws or gaps in real estate information for consumers remain, if any?

A: No matter how well-informed consumers were, unless they took a very broad look — and recognized a bubble — they were likely to participate in an inevitable downturn. If they were buying and flipping real estate, then they were more driven by greed than by dispassionate, informed decision-making. So I’m not convinced that access to real estate information was a factor one way or the other in the downturn.

Q: How could technology be used to help prevent a future real estate or economic downturn of this magnitude?

A: Maybe I’m shortsighted but I think downturns are created by human factors and are perhaps exacerbated by technology. We might be able to moderate downturns by inserting technology that would delay stock trades by a minute. But what are the chances of ever doing that?

Q: How has the pace and cost of technological innovation changed in the past 15 years?

A: The future seems to come on faster and faster — sometimes so fast that I wonder if it’s going to reverse the aging process. Something new comes along in two years that I wouldn’t have thought possible for another five years. It’s like getting three years younger!

Q: Will technology drive down the average cost of real estate services that consumers pay? Has it already? Will it improve the quantity and quality of real estate service that they receive? Has it already?

A: We’re still operating a 21st century land economy with an 18th century land-recordation system. We have to research deeds filed on paper in hundreds of the counties in the nation. A uniform title system — a national cadastre (real estate registry) — might save some time and costs, but I doubt that I’ll live to see it.

Q: What are the red flags with increasing use, reliance of technology in real estate and other industries, if any?

A: One might be the public relying on "Zestimates" (property value estimates) as gospel and arguing with municipal tax authorities’ assessments. While I use Zillow a lot, I think it’s a very disruptive force.

Q: Technology can be an equalizer, by making massive amounts of information accessible to many, and at the same time can empower and facilitate social change, and organized and virtually spontaneous group actions — even political revolutions. Because so many on the planet are connected by wire or wirelessly to one another, what potential do you see for online networks on a global scale?

A: The potential has been realized already. I wonder if the founders of Facebook and Twitter realized their products would be instrumental in overthrowing governments?

Q: What is the as-yet-untapped potential and what does it represent for technological innovators?

A: There’s a potential to level the playing field and provide more universal opportunities in, say, Africa through ubiquitous access to global networks, but a lot more than technology has to change for this to happen

Q: For industries such as real estate?

A: The ability of a country to record and guarantee title to land holdings is utterly fundamental to economic development in emerging countries. The technology to do this is becoming cheaper and more accessible. Establishing cadastres in emerging countries will not only support development but make a robust real estate market possible.

Q: What are some overarching trends in technology innovation and adoption that you would expect to see continued, evolved or launched in the next 15 years?

A: Software and data migrating to cloud-based services, with ubiquitous access on affordable, pocket-sized machines. Will people learn to use information critically and wisely? We’ll see.

Q: Any other thoughts about the past 15 years in technology and real estate, in terms of innovation, lessons learned, trends established?

A: I’m shopping for a house, and much as I may have (said about) Zillow in my responses, I’m glad it’s there and available as a tool for me to use!

Be a part of Real Estate Connect’s 15th anniversary — the next Real Estate Connect event is scheduled from July 27-29, 2011, at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square hotel (more information).


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