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Defining Moments: NAR Gateway/TREC and the Open Web

Apr 2, 2008 Michael Wurzer

The Gateway/TREC/TBD discussions are heating up againsort of.  Re-visiting the topic seems timely with the latest iteration of the NAR PAG report recently “released” and the trimester RETS meetings in Philadelphia next week.

My take is this: The NAR may well have the cart before the horse.  So far, the NAR’s PAG seems to have focused on defining a “system” for aggregation but the TREC documents avoid the fundamental question of the terms of use on which brokers and MLSs will agree to share data.  Here’s a quote from the document:

Existing MLSs are encouraged, but not required to, participate in TREC.Those MLSs that participate agree that the information they provide will be available to all REALTORS® and MLS participants and subscribers.

Then, further down, the document says:

Using TREC will not require REALTORS, MLS participants or subscribers, or MLSs to relinquish any of their intellectual property rights.

These two statements seem inconsistent, because an MLS or broker submitting data to TREC will be required to license that data to all other TREC subscribers and such a license is a transfer of intellectual property rights.  This apparent conflict is just one of many key questions, however, regarding the terms of use for the data submitted to TREC.

The document also stresses that the data will not be publicly accessible.  Yet, at the same time, the “Statement of Inevitability” at the beginning of the document lists the proliferation of “[c]onsumer-focused real estate websites” as one of the reasons TREC is necessary — to keep Realtors “at the center of the real estate transaction.” At this level, not only does the concept feel like the cart before the horse but also like trying to put the horse back in the barn, just as they’ve started to run free.

This brings us back to the core issue: What are the terms of use on which brokers and MLSs will allow others to use their data? TREC tries answering this question only in the most narrow terms (broker/agent to broker/agent, in private, behind a walled garden) but the web insists on asking a much bigger question involving not just brokers and agents but consumers and third-party aggregators and so many others. As the links above show, brokers are already answering these questions for themselves by sending listing data here and there but not yet everywhere, which creates the very real likelihood that TREC will be too late to the party.

Of course, NAR is hamstrung in fostering the necessary dialog about usage of listing data on the web by the DOJ litigation. Also, in spite of the insistence that it isn’t any such thing, TREC very well may be the first gingerly step in the direction of addressing the question of how listing data should be used on the web. Rather than being the cart before the horse, an actual implementation of a national aggregation may be exactly what is needed — and all NAR can do for now — to incubate the discussion. For this, I applaud the work of the PAG.

Like the NAR PAG, I believe this is a defining moment for real estate data on the web and I encourage the NAR to consider how it can re-visit the big issue of sharing listing data on the web. That’s what the consumers want, not having to go through an agent to access the data. For example, one of the best uses of TREC data would be for an agent or broker to create a publicly accessible web site to engage their customers. Yet, that seems off the table. I’m pretty certain the NAR PAG would have loved to create a more sweeping plan involving both public and private access, but felt it wasn’t possible. The result is the proposal focuses on implementing a closed system instead of creating a foundation on which others can build systems.

What I think would be useful is for NAR to foster a discussion among brokers, agents and MLSs regarding the Open Web and what that means for real estate. This same discussion is occurring right now with regard to the web as a whole, and Brad Neuberg recently suggested: “If we take the long term view, how can we give the web an open enough infrastructure to evolve over time and meet each generations needs, while maintaining its structure enough to actually mean something and stay true to its promise, similar to the U.S. Constitution?” He emphasizes that this isn’t so much about specific technology but rather the general philosophy: “if we define the Open Web in terms of [specific] technologies, then we risk losing sight of what makes the web special and being able to have the intellectual nimbleness to evolve the infrastructure of the web. . . . We will be fighting yesterdays battle while allowing new, proprietary technologies to take over if we focus on technologies rather than philosophy.”

This is where I think NAR can provide leadership, by fostering discussions around how aggregated real estate data can be made most valuable in an ever changing world. IDX has been and remains one of the best tools available to agents and brokers for engage with customers on the web today. Is it time to revisit the IDX policies of old? Are the same questions and controversies that arose over VOWs in the DOJ litigation still a concern? Or is it now possible to redefine IDX in a way to make it even more useful? These questions are left unanswered by TREC, for good reason no doubt, but I think they remain the core questions.