Upstream Adjusts and Improves

by Victor Lund on May 31, 2017

WAV Group has played a humble role in the evolution of Upstream from a concept to where it is today. The effort has been shaped by the deep involvement of leading technologists from across the brokerage and franchise community. This week, we have been pummeled by questions arising out of their recent announcement during the 2017 Midyear REALTORS LEGISLATIVE MEETINGS & TRADE EXPO in Washington D.C.

upstream-logo_2Upstream is a bright concept for improving data management in real estate today. If you understand the laws of America, you understand that Licensed Real Estate Brokers supervise agent and consumer real property transactions and are responsible for the data involved. This is a serious legal obligation. The law requires that the supervising broker protects the consumer’s interest as it relates to data collected during the process of representing the consumer. The procuring brokerage is fully liable for its practices with all data – listing data, consumer records, and agent records.

Upstream is the most advanced broker data management software in real estate. The very best way for Upstream to communicate with any other MLS databases or Vendor databases is by using APIs. Application Programming Interfaces are the most modern and accepted methods for managing the exchange of data. This is not a disparaging comment against MLS systems – they are excellent too. However, with some exceptions like FlexMLS by FBS, they are slow to adopt APIs until this year.

Today’s modern MLS systems are highly sophisticated applications that are customized to an MLS area. They are the data repositories that allow brokers to share data in a fair and orderly way. They have common rules that govern the relationships between firms and how data may be used through shared MLS services.

The only commonly designated method for using MLS data was IDX – Internet data exchange. IDX is the concept that allows brokers who are participants in an MLS to display other members’ listings. That one-way push has evolved beautifully over the years to include full MLS data pulls, Virtual Office Website data pulls, and IDX pulls using an industry specific construct called RETS – Real Estate Transaction Standard.

Thanks to the inspired efforts of the volunteers and staff of the Real Estate Standards Organization, nearly every MLS in America has launched API access for the first time! This is a really big deal. Shaping the data inside an MLS system to a RESO standard API is not easy. If MLS RESO APIs were bi-directional today, that would be the best way to connect Upstream to any MLS. But they are not, yet. It is on the RESO roadmap to release an API for listing update before the end of the year.

The RESO API standard uses an open data approach using the widely-adopted RESTful (Representational State Transfer) technology used by many industries today, including OData v 4.0. MLSs have risen to the call and released one way APIs this year. I would expect the two-way API capabilities to follow right behind. But remember, it takes time and it is hard. Real estate is rich in legacy data that is the very root of the value of an MLS for its brokers. Data fields and their values for numerated values that have been used for years need to be preserved by transposing everything to new names and new rules for the numerated values.

The MLS offerings in America are brilliant for about 80% of all agents who belong to the nation’s top 200 largest MLSs. Large MLSs hit on all cylinders across America today and they are valued enormously by their brokers. Mid-sized MLSs do not have the financial resources to hit on all cylinders. For the most part, they are very good, but they may have some weaknesses. This is typical when you run a team with a thin bench of staff. For example, if the one compliance officer for your MLS retires, gets recruited, for leaves the company – there is no back up. If an MLS has less than 12 full time staff, they are overwhelmed if they have any weak links in the staff. The smallest MLSs in America with fewer than 500 agent subscribers are super light on staff. They are too small to afford a big team.

Out of the gate, Upstream aimed high and developed their pilot integration with MLSs that were aiming at API integration. Portland MLSs and MLS Listings in Silicon Valley have highly experienced database engineers, developers, product managers, and project managers on staff that operate at a high level. Upstream is working with other pilot MLSs too. They learned through dialog with MLSs that a two-way data share process using the old RESO standard of RETS Update is the fastest path to integrating Upstream with MLSs today. The MLS systems are already configured for this, not APIs.

In 2009, database engineers from MRIS, and 5 or 6 Los Angeles MLSs created a system called CARETS. Paragon, The MLS Claw, Matrix, Rapattoni, FlexMLS, MLxchange all shared data through CARETS. And there are similar data shares that happen in northern California, the Midwest, Florida, Texas, and  other major areas where there is market overlap between MLSs.  RETS datasharing has worked well for a long time and every MLS vendor system is data sharing with other MLS vendor systems. Upstream will be just another data share. As two-way RESO APIs are adopted, Upstream will convert from RETS to API. The big announcement at Midyear is that Upstream will support the established RETS system until APIs are available.

Everybody reading this has an iPhone or Android phone. It has apps. You authorize apps to access data like your calendar, your contacts, etc.  Those are using APIs. Upstream is a shared ecosystem that uses the same strategy used by Apple and Android. Like the data on your phone, it is encrypted and securely stored and only you, the licensed broker supervising the data can access it or direct where it goes.

Sometimes it helps to visualize a data management problem that is prevalent though out real estate, Agent Photos! Setting aside all jokes, if a broker wants to update an agent’s profile photo or license number across every connected application authorized by the broker today, it would take hours for each agent. The agent would need to log into every application and upload their photo and manage their profile. Barring the misfortune of forgotten login credentials – it is a piecemeal affair. With Upstream, the agent could manage their photo in one place and every agent website, broker website, franchise site, Realtor Association site, MLS, and so forth would be updated in 15 minutes or less.

Currently, Upstream is moving data to application service providers in less than a minute. But in fairness, payloads are light. As more data moves, it may slow down a bit. I think that Zillow is accessing data from all of their MLSs in sub-6 minute intervals. Heck – they are so good that they publish the listing and send out consumer listing updates before properties even publish to most broker IDX sites.

Big, sophisticated firms doing data aggregation like BrightMLS, CRMLS, MLS Listings (and a bunch of other MLSs with engineering teams),Redfin, Wolfnet, Homes.com, RPR, Real Estate Digital, and CoreLogic can hang with Zillow – along with the enterprise broker website companies. Regardless, fewer than a dozen or so technology firms have the network infrastructure to handle the 2 Million MLS updates that happen every day.  Many people in real estate could have been hired to build Upstream. The Upstream board elected to select Realtors Property Resource(RPR), a wholly owned business of the National Association of REALTORS® to build the Upstream Application, with funding support from NAR.

NAR has developed an enormous asset for it members in RPR. The last time I looked, they are a few percentage points away from having every parcel of property in America in the database. They also pull data from nearly every MLS. That database is an asset of the member brokers and NAR is more than willing to invest resources in making it fit the Upstream requirements. The executive committee leadership of NAR authorized its unanimous support, and the 734 voting member board of directors approved the investment (641 to 93). They authorized development money to RPR and are lending up to $1.5 Million to Upstream which will be repaid when there are active brokers on the platform. And remember, even though brokers are paying – they are not paying any profits out to anyone – only costs of building and operating the solution. It’s not a profit-making venture like ZipLogix. Upstream’s financial directives are more akin to a co-op.

By the way, Upstream has very strict by-laws that prevent anyone from being enriched. Shares of ownership cannot be sold for profit. Shares of ownership are also not permitted to receive a dividend. The board also has equal representation across large firms, midsized firms, and small firms – along outside directors and directors from the National Association of REALTORS®. Upstream is truly a composite effort by and for every real estate broker in America and not for profit.

Estimates from America’s largest brokerage firms, franchise organizations, and the development cost reviews thus far have all indicated that when it is built, Upstream will be a better solution at a much lower cost than what brokerage firms are paying to host data themselves, or paying a vendor to host. Today’s brokers are all paying for storing data, but the data is not mapped to the network of application vendors that brokers use. Upstream maps it all together so a broker authorizes API access and the application is immediately populated with the firm’s data. Revoke API credentials and the data is shut off instantly.

Hopefully this helps.

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