NEW YORK — Using bathroom humor to sum up an undying problem with data standards, Joel Macintosh, CEO for real estate tech company WolfNet, shared a request from a programmer at his company.
"Could you do me a favor? Could you have (the industry) fix ‘bathrooms’?" the programmer asked when he learned that Macintosh would be speaking about data standards to an audience of multiple listing service officials and vendors during the Real Estate Connect conference.
Figuring out how to best calculate and represent the intricacies in the data field for representing a home’s number of bathrooms — halves and quarters, fractions and decimals — is among the flashpoints in the ongoing discussion and debate over the best practices in standardizing property data.
During a series of MLS panels at the conference, industry experts discussed workarounds for the industry’s slow implementation of data standards; consolidation; an "MLS App Store"; stronger connections between consumers and MLSs; and building a larger pool of MLS data, among other topics.
Finding common ground
Ira Luntz, vice president of data products for LPS Real Estate Group, a tech company that works with data from about 400 MLSs, said when it comes to data standards, "some of the problems are small, some of them are larger, some of them are ginormous."
Representations of square footage and the number of bathrooms are among the tricky issues when trying to map data from numerous MLSs, Luntz noted, and some vendors have developed their own standards for smoothing out data differences.
"It doesn’t help the industry at all if we can’t convey and purvey the data in a certain way," Luntz said, and he said it will require industry leadership in moving forward with adoption and implementation of standards.
Rich Lull, who also works for LPS Real Estate Group as senior vice president of MLS Solutions, said his company employs about 30 "data mappers" who work with data in a variety of formats and from a variety of sources.
He said that such efforts "are not the most efficient use" of resources, and that MLSs would have a lot more flexibility if data standardization were implemented across the industry.
"Somebody’s got to take 900 sets of disparate data and put it into some common format," he said, adding that the collective data would hold more value for the industry. "Until that data is aggregated into a standard, it makes it very hard to monetize."
LPS and WolfNet, among other vendors, have worked to implement standards for their own customers, panelists noted.
Macintosh said it was an easy business decision for his company to work on standardization for clients.
And more widespread implementation of standards should be a win for MLSs, as it can lower the barriers to entry for new innovations in MLS technology and allow MLSs to more seamlessly "transition from vendor to vendor," Macintosh said.
While increased competition can cut into the business of more established industry vendors, "We understand that we have to compete in this industry based on the product offering we bring to the table," Macintosh said. "We welcome (new) standards."
Michael Wurzer, a moderator for a series of MLS panels who himself is CEO for real estate tech company FBS Data Systems, noted that there has been a power play from MLSs seeking faster implementation of data standards.
In an election last year for board members of the Real Estate Standards Organization Board of Directors, executives of several major MLSs, including Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. (MRIS, the nation’s largest MLS) and California Regional MLS Inc., were named to the board.
Their election to the board, and their commentary about RESO’s failings, reflect that the "biggest MLSs in the country are dead serious about data standards," Wurzer said in a September 2010 blog post.
On Thursday, Wurzer said that RESO is now seeking an accelerated timeline for implementing data standards within a year, and said the standards are expected to feature about 650 total MLS data fields, values and labels.
Proponents of faster adoption and implementation of standards include members of MLS Cooperative Venture (COVE), a group that promotes the ability for MLSs to share knowledge and enact industry change to benefit their broker members.
An MLS "App Store"
A shared data standard would lead to such innovations as an "MLS App Store," Wurzer suggested, as vendors could more easily design new "plug and play" technologies for all MLSs.
"The fact that we haven’t gotten together and produced a data standard is one of our biggest failings, in my mind," as an industry, said Art Carter, CEO for California Regional Multiple Listing Service Inc. CRMLS was formed last year through a merger of the California Association of Realtors’ calREDD MLS system with Pomona-Calif.-based Multi-Regional Multiple Listing Service Inc.
He also said that the MLS ultimately "is there for the brokers it serves," and normalizing industry data should not require "exponential amounts of money."
While tech vendors can be key partners for MLSs, Carter also said that the industry itself should be driving its own strategic initiatives. "Vendors shouldn’t be driving the plans for the MLS," he said.
Questioning MLS "right to exist"
The hundreds of MLSs across the country should do some soul-searching about whether they are fulfilling the needs of their members, or whether consolidation may be the best solution.
"I think 800-plus MLSs is too many. I don’t think that anybody in this room disagrees that there isn’t some consolidation … a lot of consolidation, that still needs to be done," Carter said.
"From a strategic standpoint, that’s why an organization has to figure out … ‘Do we have a right to exist?’ Just because we’ve always been there doesn’t mean we always should be there."
Rob Hahn, a partner with 7DS Consulting who participated in an MLS-related panel, said that the MLS and its participants can do well to divvy up tasks and avoid overlap and conflicting goals, which can be a point of contention when brokers and MLSs are offering similar services for agents.
"There’s an ecosystem of brokers, agents, MLSs, franchisees, franchisors that are trying to help the real estate professional do better business," he said, but "just because it’s an ecosystem doesn’t mean everyone needs to do the same thing."
Consumer members for MLSs?
Industry experts are also wrestling with issues over consumer interaction with MLSs.
Bob Hale, CEO for the Houston Association of Realtors, has a very popular public-facing property search site powered by its MLS, and Hale said the association has considered whether to treat consumers using that website as sort of "affiliate" or "consumer members" of the MLS.
"We want the ability to communicate with them — the way you communicate with consumers" of a website, he said.
The association, if it could count consumer "members" in addition to its industry members, who have full access to the MLS data, would create "a whole different ballgame" for the industry, he suggested.
Wurzer also suggested that consumers’ engagement with MLS-based data "is a real positive asset that perhaps isn’t being leveraged as much as it could."
New data options
And while panelists generally disagreed with providing fuller MLS access — such as the ability to enter for-sale-by-owner listings information into an MLS — bringing FSBO listings within the MLS could introduce a new business opportunity for the industry, said Marilyn Wilson, a partner with WAV Group, a real estate consulting firm.
Also, Curt Beardsley, vice president of strategy for Realtor.com, a part of Move Inc., said that MLSs could be the umbrella for a range of information beyond the standard factual details about a property.
The second set of data could be "specifically targeted for how that listing is going to be presented to a consumer audience," and could include details such as the proximity of a school bus stop and other such details "not available in these mass databases that we’re all building."
"There is a huge opportunity for the MLSs to actually increase their scope, to capture not only the data Realtors need but all the data consumers need as well," he said.