Unshackling MLS data: It’s time to accelerate NOW

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Networked office and web (NOW) model is one policy and one license for one holistic data set, and the concept is supported by a broad group of brokerage organizations

The real estate data race is at full throttle. Broker, MLS and association initiatives are attempting to provide brokers with faster access to more robust data. Traditional policy is hampering that progress. We need a new model.

RESO’s conference sessions have surfaced a common desire among many brokers and MLS executives. They need a single, efficient framework for all of their data needs: one policy, one license, one all-encompassing data set. A plan is emerging to meet those needs: the networked office and web (NOW) model.

(Hear more about the NOW model during Inman Connect NOW’s Data Track on Tuesday, June 2.)

The path to move the industry forward doesn’t require broad technology changes. MLSs already have the capabilities. They simply need a policy and license to provide clarity. The biggest players in the brokerage space are weighing in with support.

Data access inefficiencies

Headlining current pain points for brokers is an MLS policy proposed by CMLS and ratified by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). It requires that brokers are allowed to access their own listing data when participating in an MLS.

“MLS data is the lifeblood of brokers’ market insights. The more resources brokers are forced to spend on wrangling MLS data, the less they have to spend on pivoting their technology to serve consumers.”

The chains to break

Access to data in the organized real estate space is mired in complex access and display policies. The management of multiple overlapping data sets, policies and licenses is as much a compliance and management burden for MLSs as it is a technical moat for brokers. This relationship should be simple, but we have made it just the opposite.

Traditional policy concepts for siloed data sets

  • IDX: Internet data exchange, a multibrokerage listing data set to be used for website advertising
  • VOW: Virtual office website, an expanded multibrokerage data set to be displayed online but only behind a client-broker registration wall
  • BBO: Broker back office, the broadest set of fields, an individual broker’s entire data set for use in that broker’s internal systems
  • Valuation: Multibrokerage data sets for the specific use of assisting clients in valuing properties

[Note: These are commonly referred to as an “IDX feed” or “VOW feed,” but the MLS is not pushing a feed to anyone. It is simply allowing the broker to access a subset of its database. In envisioning a new model, let’s call these models “data sets” instead of “feeds.”]

These data sets overlap each other, and the rules for employing each set create an unnecessary maze for brokers. They have grown out of 20-year-old policies individually updated over time but not reimagined as a whole.

In designing a new model, the first focal point would be on the business needs of the broker. Streamlined rules and compliance would be created to fit those needs.

Broker business needs

  1. Their own full data set for internal brokerage and external uses
  2. A multibroker listing data set for public display (where allowed), transaction cooperation, CMAs, AVMs, data crunching for forecasting, predictive models and more

The data set to support these needs already exists in most MLSs. Its fields make up a broker back-office (BBO) data set. In the NOW model, a data set based on the BBO would include all broker participants’ data, to be used for all approved broker purposes, not just back office.

(See the full list of standard RESO Data Dictionary fields in BBO — MLSs can supplement with additional custom local fields.)

The NOW data would provide the utility of IDX, VOW, BBO and valuation data in a single model. A single policy would clarify which data uses are prohibited and then allow participants to find creative ways to leverage the power of the cooperative’s data. The license would include rules for the display or distribution of data by the participant and provide flexibility for data uses internally and with clients.

Gino Blefari

“Data without analysis is just noise,” said Gino Blefari, CEO of HomeServices of America. “The brokers and their agents originate the data for the MLS to store on behalf of the industry. Serve it back to all of us, and let us compete to see who can innovate and provide the best analysis and search tools for the consumers.”

Where NOW Fits In

Jon Coile is the chair of Bright MLS and VP of MLS and Industry Relations for HomeServices of America. He understands the intersection between policy, technology and real estate brokerage as well as anyone in the industry. I’ve worked with Coile and other industry leaders on NAR committees imagining the future of MLS capabilities. Data is a primary topic, which is why RESO has been involved in the discussions.

We dubbed the new model NOW to emphasize that it is distinct from traditional concepts of IDX and VOW and supports today’s brokerage data needs. It is our belief that this model is central to the brokerage cooperative’s next chapter.

IDX and VOW would remain in policy, ensuring their stability and pro-competitive benefits are still accessible by brokers who employ these tools. For non-participant advertising partners such as syndication portals, current data sets like IDX seem to suffice for display needs.

The NOW model would see widespread adoption by brokers as the industry recognizes its superior efficiency.

Brokers voice support

Craig Cheatham

Craig Cheatham, CEO of The Realty Alliance, says the broker network sees the value: “Brokers appreciate MLS efforts to safeguard our data and its use, and we always will need policy protections against abuse. However, a new approach to supporting participants deserves consideration.

“MLSs have the potential to streamline their own workload while empowering brokers with the removal of unnecessary red tape that requires time and effort to regulate. Leaving business decisions to brokers is a win-win.”

The outreach to brokers large and small has seen nothing but support thus far. Many have asked for a policy proposal to NAR’s MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board this summer. This looks like Part 1 of a slate of broker efficiency proposals that are coming into focus.

Aligning with other streamlining efforts

Some MLSs have told us they’re ready to employ a concept like NOW. They simply need the rules defined and blessed so that they can implement it in a standard and approved way.

Brad Bjelke

Brad Bjelke, CEO of UtahRealEstate.com and chair of the Council of MLS expressed support from the MLS community for the concept of streamlining policy. CMLS’s recent efforts have laid the groundwork for moving to a more efficient model:

“CMLS supports best practices that allow our MLS members to excel and that help our MLS participants operate more efficiently and effectively in their local markets. In 2018, CMLS proposed a policy we referred to as the ‘The Listing Exchange.’ This proposal aims to clarify the current IDX and VOW rules so that MLSs can better understand and explain how data can be distributed to their participants and third-party vendors. We continue to work to advance that proposal, and we look forward to working with other industry stakeholders on alternative policy recommendations that improve the data distribution process.”

Starting NOW

MLSs can streamline their data relationships with their brokers and technology partners by moving to the NOW model today. History has shown that a clear NAR policy — and likely a model license agreement blessed by NAR — will be necessary to gain wide adoption and provide clarity for implementation. But forward-thinking MLSs have always independently pushed the envelope with broker-centric practices, providing real-world examples for what a national model could look like.

Will bad actors seek to exploit streamlined data access? Of course, but that’s nothing new. Will there be unintended consequences? No decision has ever been made without them.

Yet we can’t let a few bad apples spoil progress for the rest. Empowering professionals to serve consumers with efficient technology has to trump the fear of the unknown.

The time is NOW. Is your organization ready to lead the way?

Sam DeBord is CEO of Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO). He has served as the National Association of Realtors­ President’s Liaison for MLS and Data Management, President of Seattle King County REALTORS, and Managing Broker for Coldwell Banker Danforth.