Open Architecture — What it Really Means to Associations and MLSs

A real world analogy

Imagine doing something simple like checking the weather on your smartphone. You want to know if it’s safe to schedule a tee time or plan tomorrow’s picnic. Knowing the predicted temperature isn’t enough, you want details, such as an hour-by-hour forecast that predicts the chance of rain, temperature ranges, humidity, winds, etc. For that you would probably fire up the Weather Channel app, which uses an application programming interface (API), to display every imaginable data point needed to make an informed decision about tomorrow’s plans.

But you’re not limited to just the Weather Channel. Depending on preference, apps like Accuweather, Weatherbug, and Dark Sky all offer what you want. Each does different things and appeals to different users … and all operate using an API.

Simply, APIs open the internal architecture of a service to others, and the result is often a service of much greater value than the sum of the parts. The most popular data sources accessible through a published API include household names such as Facebook, Google Maps, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Pinterest.

Open architecture in the real estate realm works the same way … or it should. No matter the task or desired tools, an open system––a standardized database with available API connectors––will allow any authorized application to connect through an API to retrieve requested data, sometimes from multiple sources, to do the work agents and brokers want to do, like listing agents who may only need CMA and market research tools or buyer agents who may only need property search and tour info.

In an open system, agents are not limited to the “one size fits all” default interface offered by the one MLS-chosen vendor. API based systems allow agents to pick Cloud CMA for their listing presentations, Boomtown for their CRM and lead management needs, and TLCEngine for qualifying buyers, all without giving up their live connection to the real-time MLS database.

Such a system would allow MLSs to consider a new business model in offering services—one where multiple application vendors compete on the utility and value their applications offer, not just on price. This approach opens the door for a multitude of options the MLS may offer agents and brokers, and through those options, empower subscribers to select only those which enhance their ability to do more business with greater efficiency.

Yet, the MLS industry of today runs on a small collection of proprietary database systems that are closed to access by any outside software. If a developer wants to sell a software program that uses MLS data, it must acquire a data license and then download the data to a locally hosted database. They cannot access the MLS database directly. To complicate matters, each proprietary MLS database is different, requiring the developer to map the data from each MLS into a common format so the app program can read it.

Data and access standards through an API change that relationship. When adopted by the real estate industry, each MLS database that uses that API can be queried by the new applications directly, without downloading and synchronizing multiple databases. Developers can build the app once and deploy it in hundreds of systems reaching millions of agents. Doing so opens the door to large numbers of new developers who realize increased opportunities for expansion. Their participation will stimulate innovation and bring products to market that would never have been possible before.

For the real estate industry, that means a whole new world of options, primarily more choices and greater flexibility.

For the MLS

  • Control over how services are bundled and offered to subscribers.
  • Complete authority over partnering developers and software companies, including price and revenue sharing.
  • Increased compliance and improved data integrity. A single property record, with nearly all required fields already resident, will eliminate most typographical errors. Staff still has ultimate oversight and responsibility for rules compliance.
  • Become more comfortable sharing data on a common platform with neighbors, while considering how to handle the more sensitive and difficult consolidation issues of governance and finances.

For Brokers

  • Flexibility and control, key characteristics of an API-based system, allow MLSs to be more responsive to a Broker’s business needs.
  • Brokers can maintain control over applications their agents use.
  • More opportunities to promote tools to agents that allow them to reduce costs through the unbundling of “MLS core services.”
  • Receive a single data feed from multiple participating MLSs in a standardized format.

For Agents

  • Choose from a gallery of applications, not previously available through traditional MLS systems.
  • Mix and match tools from different vendors to suit needs, business plans and work styles.
  • Data stays in sync as you work across multiple applications.
  • Entering and updating listings is easier and more streamlined.

Open architecture as a disruptive business model

There is a great deal of discourse in the real estate industry about open architecture. Yet, it boils down to perspective. Traditional vendors of these closed database solutions recognize they are vulnerable to disruption by this new approach. Some embrace the concept by extending existing systems with a read-only version of an API-accessible database. CoreLogic, the largest legacy vendor, has introduced Trestle. Not to be outdone, Zillow (while not an MLS vendor, certainly a major database player) has offered the Retsly® service that aggregates MLS data and makes it available through an API.

One major MLS vendor, FBS Data Systems, took the initiative by launching an early version of an API-based platform when they introduced Spark for FlexMLS in 2012. Recognizing the growing interest in open architecture systems, FBS also recently announced a partnership with Solid Earth to integrate their Spring platform with the Spark API. The announcement validates the premise behind open architecture––that competing vendors can all prosper when “interoperability” is the goal.

Realtors Property Resource® (RPR®) is developing the Advanced MultiList Platform (AMP). In essence, AMP reimagines the architecture of the modern MLS by providing technology that opens the MLS database to API access for both input and retrieval of property data, thereby expanding the type, quantity, and quality of tools and applications that can be offered by both large and small MLSs to their subscribers.

Through AMP’s open architecture, 1) subscribers choose either a small set of individual applications, a full-featured traditional MLS system, or both, 2) application developers bring dozens of new products and services to subscribers, and 3) the MLS maintains control over its data and application offerings. This approach eliminates the need for a parallel output server, like Trestle or Spark, and eliminates any latency or lag inherent in updating the output database with live MLS data.

If you are an independent developer, however, your opportunities border on euphoria. Hundreds of possible markets will soon be open to you and your team, where previously totally inaccessible.

Open architecture and the future of real estate

API is the buzzword of the year in real estate. It’s being talked about by many and analyzed by some, but will benefit all when this digital experience is more widely adopted. Here are some articles that will more fully explain the growing interest and potential impact of widespread API adoption.

Helpful reading:

For more on AMP, visit blog.narrpr.com/amp

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