So far in Part 1 of our journey, we have examined the pressing problems facing the MLS industry.
In Part 2, we identified the source of those problems.
In Part 3 we proposed a solution based on a totally new architecture of the core MLS technology, the database that drives the entire interconnected system. Now let’s look at how we get to this solution.
The road map to success for such a dramatic change in the infrastructure of our industry will be fraught with peril and filled with potholes. But with a common purpose and diligent attention we can achieve success.
Throughout this project I have been encouraged by the open mindedness of most of the major technology companies I have talked with in pursuit of this goal. But such a pursuit closely resembles the traditional chicken-and-egg paradox – which comes first?
Does a major MLS vendor take the first step, segregate its database and open it to developers with an invitation to cooperate in a larger pursuit? This has been attempted on a limited scale and has seen some modest success. FBS, itself a major MLS technology provider, introduced its Spark Platform some years ago but it has not captured the imagination of the vendor community at large.
The Clareity Store seeks to address the interoperability challenges between MLS systems through a common authentication linkage between systems and vendors but does not take on the challenge of common interfaces across all database systems.
No single legacy vendor has dared to take the first step of divorcing the database from the applications layer and opening the system to all developers without licensing costs. At the same time, no group of application developers has aggregated its product lines in hopes of enticing system vendors to open their systems. Short of the few inquiries I received initially, no MLS CEO has taken the bold step of actually notifying an MLS vendor that the MLS was aggressively pursuing this approach and would require the MLS vendor to cooperate or lose the market. No one wants to go first.
Now an industry consultant with no stake in the current MLS vendor field has proposed someone, some technology vendor somewhere, take the first step and create the open database into which a community of application providers can offer their products across a broad base of MLS operators. But that vendor will want to see a broader demand base of support before it would be willing to expend the time and effort needed to even reply to a request for proposal.
The key to cracking the eggs and hatching the chicks is to identify and induce a group of MLSs willing to take the first step and ask for the system to be developed. Fortunately, a couple of intrepid MLSs were willing to take that first step and with their committed inquiries in hand, I approached a number of technology vendors to see if I could find one willing to work on this project.
But I had some firm criteria that a database vendor needed to meet to be considered. An endeavor such as this could not be just two guys in a garage who thought they could do it. Here were my criteria:
- It had to be a substantial company (read that as having resources, both financial and personnel, to actually do this) with a track record of aggregating data and managing a large, scalable database ;
- It had to be a company with experience not just in handling MLS data but in integrating multiple other databases into a cohesive property-centric system; and
- It had to be a company with minimal industry “baggage” — not a company to which the first reaction of most would be, “OH, NO, not them.”
That last requirement eliminated a number of the most likely candidates including the national portals as well as most of the major system vendors and all but a couple of public records providers. In an undertaking like this one, if a company had both lovers and haters, the stridency of the haters would probably overwhelm any attempt at honest debate and careful, logical consideration.
Fortunately I finally identified one company that met all my criteria but which I thought would, for reasons that will be obvious shortly, not be able to even consider getting involved. That company was the Realtors Property Resource – RPR – the subsidiary of the National Association of REALTORS(R) that has been successfully operating a national-scale property-centric aggregated database of real estate information for over five years.
RPR has a specific mission — to supply Realtor practitioners with technology tools and information that would allow them to further demonstrate their value to better serve their consumer clients by providing service that their clients could get nowhere else. Their product is spectacular. Those that use it love it and it has been steadily evolving and improving to the point where those who use it regularly feel they couldn’t do without it.
RPR was created through the acquisition of the Cyberhomes technical team and product base from Black Knight (at that time called LPS). With the team and the technology, RPR negotiated data licenses for many of the public records and other data sets that LPS had accumulated and continues to license that data today. RPR has direct data feed relationships with more than 600 MLSs, including 900 associations, representing over 865,000 REALTORS® and has already built the technology to facilitate sharing those data sets across any number of MLSs that have separately agreed to do so.
In my initial meeting with RPR, Dale Ross (CEO), Marty Frame (President) and Jeff Young (Chief of Operations) expressed one significant reservation about even considering this project. If RPR were to jump in, it might be very misunderstood by the rank and file Realtor as an attempt at a power grab by NAR — trying to create a National MLS and put all the locals out of business. Admittedly, such a scenario would be incredibly stupid for RPR to attempt because (a) they had contracts with hundreds of MLSs that prohibit them from competing to provide MLS services, and (b) many of the Realtor associations rely on income from their MLSs to provide other services to their Realtor members. Even though such a move would be political suicide, that fact alone would not be enough to keep some people from thinking there might be an ulterior motive. Conspiracy theories would abound and proponents of this new technology would be shouted down before they could even explain the benefits involved.
But if I were to come to RPR and ask them to respond to specific MLSs who have specific needs and are asking for help from RPR to meet those needs, well that would be a different story. If RPR were asked to repurpose technology that NAR had already invested millions of dollars to develop, and in doing so could create an alternate revenue stream for the company, the executives of RPR would be derelict in their management responsibilities not to respond.
And so I did. With RPR’s endorsement (and, full disclosure, their agreement to cover my time and expenses in this undertaking), I began contacting MLSs that were identified as strong potential partners, led by executives and leadership who were open-minded and forward-looking, leaders who would hear me out without shouting me down at the first mention of something new, different, challenging, but ultimately rewarding for all involved.
And that’s where we are today. We have eight MLSs from all over the country of various sizes and configurations to whom I have made this presentation and who have submitted letters requesting a specific proposal, in writing, to create the framework for this new technology. The response was great enough that RPR had to assign the project an acronym — AMP™ — the Advanced Multi-List Platform™.
It is critical to note at this point the name of the project is Multi-List Platform, not Multi-List Service. To quell any initial heartburn, let’s dispense with the elephant in the room question right up front. AMP™ is not designed or intended to replace an MLS – Multiple Listing SERVICE. It is designed to provide the technology that the Service uses as their core system – the database platform upon which the system is built and through which Service is offered. AMP™ is not an attempt to create a national MLS (a concept that, to my thinking, wouldn’t work anyway, but that’s another blog post). AMP™ requires no changes in rules, regulations, oversight, staffing, management, or governance. The business of the MLS and the people who manage that business remain the same – just the technology behind the scenes changes.
RPR is now working on proving the concept behind the theory, putting details to the general outline of this new advanced architectural platform. They will be working with the MLSs who have stepped up as the pioneers brave enough to journey into a new world of technological innovation.
What will be the result of all these efforts? How will the problems be solved and what can all parties expect as the beneficial result of this hard work? Let’s examine those questions.
The Benefits for all Players
Separating and opening the database will immediately make possible many new approaches to MLS operations, all of which will benefit the brokers, agents, the MLS, the MLS stakeholders, and the vendors who support all of them.
For vendors, new markets will open into which they can sell their products and services. Gone will be the closed monolithic system where only the primary vendor in a market was permitted to offer services. With some slight modifications to conform to the data and schema standards and to use the APIs for access, the CMA module from an FBS system, the farming system developed by Paragon, the CRM system developed by Stratus, the prospecting and lead management system in Matrix all could run just fine on the new, open and accessible database. Third party, non-MLS system vendors would no longer be challenged to write new code for every MLS system that comes along or convert their products when the MLS changes system vendors. The database would be the same across all systems.
- By opening the MLS, technology vendors will find more open markets, more agents available to buy their products, and more opportunity to increase revenue with lower development and support costs for the MLS provider.
- Developers will also be able to get out of the business of aggregating MLS data in order to simply make their applications work.
- Product marketers would be able to accomplish MLS integration much faster and easier since the API would be the same across all MLSs. Developers could write the code once and use it with equal facility in all installations.
- Vendors would no longer be challenged to write new code for every MLS system or convert their products when the MLS changes system vendors or adds a new data field.
- Mobile app developers would no longer be challenged to build a different application for every market.
Agents and Brokers
Agents and Brokers will find a new world of applications that were previously not available to them, and those that were available can be offered in a more palatable manner.
The days of an MLS providing one tool for all subscribers because the only way to acquire it at a reasonable cost was to buy it in bulk will be a forgotten memory. With an open MLS system, the role of the MLS changes from being the reseller of a bulk purchased service to the licensor of such a service that is then purchased only by those who want and need it. The major complaint that agents were being forced to pay for services they didn’t want or need, would be eliminated.
Further, brokers with already developed infrastructures could embed any search client or other “widget” or “plug-in” directly into their company’s intranet thus further enhancing agent loyalty and brand awareness. Once the RETS standard for updating transactions is completed and published, those same broker intranets could initiate and maintain listing records directly in the MLS database through an embedded listing maintenance widget. This would maintain the data integrity of the MLS while directly addressing broker demands for renewed control over the listing distribution process using Upstream or a similar management system.
- Agents will have more choice in picking from a menu of applications that were previously not available or integrated with their MLS system.
- Agents will be free to mix and match tools from different vendors to suit their needs and work styles.
- Agents will only pay only for what each agent uses by subscribing to each of them individually.
- An agent’s data stays synced wherever she goes, as she works across different applications.
- Agents would find listing entry and update to be much easier and more streamlined. In a parcel-centric database with each physical property has only one record, thus eliminating duplicate or “refreshed” listings.
- Brokers would no longer compete with the MLS in offering tools to agents because brokers can select which MLS tools are offered to their agents.
- Brokers can now receive a single data feed or fully integrated applications from multiple MLSs in which they participate using the same platform.
- Brokers with already developed infrastructures could embed any search client or other “widget” or “plug-in” directly into their company’s intranet thus further enhancing agent loyalty and brand awareness.
- Brokerage intranets could initiate and maintain listing records directly in the MLS database through an embedded listing maintenance page or widget.
- Any brokerage that wants to build its own applications can do so easily as authorized by license. If a brokerage operates across multiple markets the broker apps will be complete and work the same in all markets.
MLS and its staff
MLS administrators will find it much easier to meet their responsibilities for keeping the MLS’s biggest asset – its data – safe from marauders. Through judicious and automated data licensing processes and effective monitoring systems, the MLS can enroll tech providers at a record rate and offer subscribers an expansive library of apps while still maintaining control over the data.
The APIs used will pass only the data needed at that moment by that application. With few exceptions, the days of vendors needing to download the entire MLS database to make their products work will be gone.
Staff and Committee work that in the past has focused on product review and selection can be refocused on more productive activities. No longer would MLS leaders need to evaluate competing products in order to choose the best one for the entire market. Under an open MLS concept, all products that met the licensing requirements and conformed to MLS data rules could be offered equally in the market. The end user, not the MLS staff or volunteers, would make the buying decision.
- MLSs can easily bring products and services to their subscribers thus satisfying the demands of their brokers for choice on a platform that evolves in the future.
- The MLS staff can meet their responsibilities to monitor data access and use, and easily cut access to offenders.
- The APIs used will pass only the data needed at that moment by that application. With few exceptions, the days of vendors needing to download the entire MLS database to make their products work will be gone and with them the uncertainty about what the vendor would or could do with the data now in their possession.
- The MLS can eliminate nearly all costs for providing IDX/VOW, as well as removing the need to rely on an outside syndication company to distribute data.
- MLSs will no longer have to purchase tools in bulk because that was the only way to acquire them it at a reasonable cost.
- Since public records and tax data are integrated with property listings in a parcel-centric paradigm, licensing costs are reduced.
- Automated licensing processes allow the MLS to offer a broad library of apps, while maintaining strict control over the licensees.
- The simplified licensing process will allow the MLS to set up many more vendors more quickly, thereby providing more sales options and the opportunity for more revenue streams.
- By eliminating competition between proprietary MLS system vendors, there will be no more MLS conversions – ever. The nightmare of retraining the entire membership on a new system will end.
- Authorized applications do not need to be supported technically with data feeds, greatly reducing the support costs to maintain and manage those feeds.
- In the “pay only for what you use” scenario, site licenses would no longer be practical or desirable. Agents would subscribe to and pay for each piece of the system they want to use.
- MLSs will increase compliance and improve data integrity. A single property record, with nearly all of the required fields already resident, will eliminate most typographical errors since new data entry will be minimized.
- For associations thinking about a future merger with another association, this structure offers much flexibility.
- Combining the two databases of merging MLSs on the same platform and using the same structure is a non-event.
- On the other hand, having a common database may negate the need to consider a merger. Overlapping market disorder is a thing of the past and with it went one of the more compelling reasons boards consider merging.
- All of the systems on the common database platform could maintain their local culture and integrity by simply sharing data with subscribers of neighboring MLSs.
- System sharing could be with or without an accompanying offer of cooperation at the option of each MLS. The association and MLS could still decide.
In the past year, RPR has introduced the concept of an open MLS platform directly to over 20 MLS chief executives and to industry leaders across the country through its RPR Advisory Council. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. AMP™ provides RPR an opportunity to continue and expand the RPR mission of supplying Realtor practitioners with tools and information that increase their value to their clients, while at the same time supplying much-needed innovation through technology and infrastructure to the MLS community.
In Conclusion (please, hold your applause)
Is this a change in direction for RPR or just a logical extension of their current mission to be a national technology solution provider? The answer is that RPR’s AMP™ project is the logical extension of the mission and purpose RPR is already fulfilling. It is an extended use of the formidable technology and infrastructure RPR has already developed.
I am hopeful that in the months to come RPR will be able to demonstrate that the ideas of the MLS tools of choice, of universal standardized data access, and of the menu of services approach to providing MLS applications to agents will prove to be a real possibility and eventually a reality. I look forward to continuing to work with RPR as we journey down this path. If you want to come along, please let me know. I’ll keep you updated on our progress.
This post first appeared on Procuring Cause blog.
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