Implementing Revolutions

Jun 3, 2007  |  Michael Wurzer

A few weeks ago at the NAR mid-year convention in D.C., there was quite a bit of buzz about the announcement that the NAR is moving forward to form a business plan to create a national repository for real estate data. Of course, this leads to speculation that NAR really is trying to create a national MLS. As reported by Inman, chair of the NAR’s  Presidential Advisory Group on the Future of the MLS, Gary Thomas, is unapologetic that a national MLS is a natural result of the creation of a national repository.

I’ve previously written that creating a national repository, which could be re-distributed locally, is both more practical and efficient than creating super-regionals. I’ve also explained why listing data standards are critical to a national repository and, importantly, how archive silos like Zillow are more old school than the future. Nonetheless, in trying to persuade the NAR members who will be financing this national repository that their money will be well-spent, Mr. Thomas laid the fear card: “Imagine a world where a national repository of real estate information on every parcel of property in this country is cataloged, that is contributed to and enriched on a daily basis to make it the number one real estate go-to site in the world for property information. Now imagine us not doing it. Imagine somebody else doing it.” That “somebody” Mr. Thomas referenced most likely is Zillow, which is trying to suck the oxygen out of the residential real estate vertical market.

However, NAR is just as wrong as Zillow if they think they or anyone else will be THE source of real estate property information. The days of silos and forced control are long gone. These are the days of data standards, mashups, and algorithms, which allow for openness and creativity and a distinct lack of control. If the web has shown us anything, there is an insatiable appetite to create new content. This new content won’t just come from NAR members and it surely won’t all be stored in any national repository. Rather, harnessing this data will depend on standard reference points (i.e., parcel number, lat/long, etc.) and search algorithms, which, of course, is the purview of Google. So, while NAR is mimicking Zillow’s attempt to be the national repository by requiring everyone to enter data into their silo so they can control access, Google is pursuing the true revolution by harnessing the potential of everyone.

Which leads me to the title of this post: Implementing Revolutions. There are two great articles in the New York Times today. The first is an article that contrasts the heroic stature we attach to those like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who usher in a revolution with new ideas, with those who implement the revolution in all of its detailed glory. The idea is that one cannot live without the other; the brilliant idea needs implementors. The second article puts a concrete emphasis on this point and notes that Page Rank, the initial discovery by Larry and Sergey, is now just one of 200 “signals” in determining search results. In other words, the revolution ushered in by the founders is being advanced by the now many Googlers, as well as the many developers adding mashups and the public adding content.

Put another way, the evolutions following the revolution are inseparable from the revolution itself. For this same reason, even if the MLS industry is in the state of revolution today, the evolution will be implemented by many who embrace and extend the vision of the revolutionaries. And that’s where standards come back into play. Standards provide a platform on which innovation can occur. NAR will do well to continue its strong focus on standards and allow the local MLSs to innovate within those standards.

One Response to “Implementing Revolutions”

  1. I agree that (open) standards & protocols are a partial solution to the challenge presented by the “list of listings.” Let’s hope we see some evolution there though the biggest challenge in open distribution of listings is probably not a technical one. Even if data formats and protocols are standardized, free access to that content would still be a problem.

    And I disagree that the argument for standards applies to the goal of creating a database of all properties. As illustrated in your post; a db of all homes is reliant on parcel information. The source of parcel information will never be distributed like the source of listing information could be. The requirement that we control ownership of real property implies that parcel and address information has a single source in local government. So, any effort to publish a national database of homes will only ever be a mirror or extension of these local data sources. The source of that data will never be distributed.

    Zillow does not require anyone to add their home to the database (though it is an option on the site) – most homes on Zillow are originally sourced from local government data.

    Zillow is a forum for the conversations that happen around the homes in our database. That is the unique content we are archiving (but not controlling). Conversations don’t really benefit from distribution but do benefit from free and open access … which is what you’ll find on Zillow. Why are conversations important? Simply because real estate is a relationship business.