Data Standards, At Last! (Maybe)

Sep 25, 2009 Michael Wurzer

Those reading the FBS Blog over the last few years will know that MLS data standards has been one of most frequent topics for my posts. I also spent a couple of years trying to lead the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) in that direction, with little effect. Thus, I went to the RESO meetings in Chicago this week with a lot of trepidation and even reservation that it would all be more of the same: no progress on data standards.

Indeed, there was a lot of the same discussion about why data standards will never happen (too much legacy data that will be lost, too expensive, too little incentive). Despite these perennial objections, however, there seems to be some good movement in the direction of standardizing MLS data. First, the Cove Group (a group of the biggest MLSs in the country) has decided that it would like to tackle data standards for their group. The members of the Cove Group are going to work among themselves to come up with their standard fields and then submit those into RESO as a change proposal to see if that can kick-start data standards.

This is a great step in the right direction, and I look forward to seeing what they develop. In fact, what I’d love to see happen is for the effort by the Cove Group to be open enough that other regional efforts already being undertaken can proceed at the same time with the same process so the results can be more easily coordinated into RETS. There are two simple things that would help achieve this objective: (1) RESO or the Cove Group should publicize the format in which they are going to publish the data standards once their work is complete; and (2) all groups should try to do their work out in the open on the web as much as possible so we can all track progress together.

During the meetings the last two days in Chicago, both of these topics were discussed a bit. First, the Cove Group representatives indicated they’d be using spreadsheets to collect, review and publish their standard fields. Second, yesterday RESO unveiled a new document management tool that will be used by the community to publish, review and comment on the RETS documentation. Currently, the document management tool isn’t yet live and so there isn’t any publicly accessible content, but, once live, all the docs will be available on the web. Also, currently the tool is primarily focused on the RETS specs, which contain little in the way of data standards, which often are best communicated in the form of a spreadsheet. Accordingly, I recommended to Chris McKeever and CRT that the tool be supplemented with the ability to include spreadsheets.

If the on-going work product of various regional groups could be published on the RESO web site through the document management tool, the likelihood that the efforts could be rolled together at the end would be much higher. Better yet, the spreadsheet formats each regional group is using should be the same. I know these are some basic issues, but I really think they’re important to making sure that the work of the various groups actually makes it into a cohesive national standard. For example, having the column headers the same so that the spreadsheets can be sorted easily in the same manner would be very helpful. In particular, how enumerations for fields are handled in terms of relationship to the primary field for easy viewing and sorting is important. Also, having a column identifying the source (regional effort or MLS) for the suggested field would be important.

Without some of these basic efforts at coordination and openness, there is a real risk that various groups will get pissy (oops, I mean proprietary) about their own work versus the work of the other groups. In contrast, if all the groups are working openly and in the same way toward the same goals, the result should be easier to coordinate. One easy way to coordinate and publicize the efforts would be to use Google or Zoho spreadsheets framed in RESO’s new document management tool. Here’s an example of how a Google spreadhseet can be framed in Confluence, which is the tool chosen by RESO for the document management function.

I fully understand that a lot of this data standards work will begin using Excel or other off-line spreadsheets, which is fine, but I’m strongly advocating that the off-line work be published for the entire community at as frequent of milestones as possible. The more transparent and open the work, the more people will be excited about participating with their own local/regional efforts.

So, that’s my pitch: openness and transparency as much as possible, please. The regional data standards efforts undergoing right now are fantastic and it would be even better to organize them into a cohesive national effort that help all the regional efforts work faster and together.