An op-ed by Alex Lange, President, and CEO of UpstreamRE, LLC
On September 7, 2018 Inman News published an opinion piece by attorney Mitch Skinner about the merits of a set of proposed “Fair Input Guidelines” (“Guidelines”) for MLSs to consider and possibly adopt that would govern how MLS participants could utilize “alternative input and maintenance” (“AIM”) systems to upload listing and other content to the MLS’ databases. Examples of AIM systems mentioned include UpstreamRE, and Zillow’s Bridge product. The term could also apply to CoreLogic’s Trestle product.
I would like to thank Mitch for disseminating these suggested guidelines. The MLS community should establish a set of standard policies and practices to guide MLS participants who will utilize AIM systems to enhance their control over their listing and other proprietary business data. There are, however, aspects of the guidelines inconsistent with the functionality Upstream is offering to its users.
Upstream is a user-controlled database where participants can upload, edit, and direct the distribution of their listing content and other business data. Much like “cloud computing” service providers (Google Drive), and MLSs themselves, Upstream does not control the quantity, quality, or intellectual property ownership of the content that its users upload to the system. It isn’t practical or even appropriate for Upstream to verify whether a participants’ content complies with third-party license agreements applicable to the MLS participants or the vendors to which the Upstream users direct their content. What that suggests is similar to you putting money in your bank account, and the bank is responsible for proving you have all the agreements in place with any vendor you decide to leverage bill pay. That particular agreement is between you and the vendor… not the bank. “Please upload your Comcast agreement so we can have someone review it to determine if we will allow you to pay them via Bill-Pay.” This is an extreme example using something as highly regulated as a bank and the transfer of money, and it’s still inappropriate.
In its template agreements with its users, Upstream expressly disclaims any responsibility for the intellectual property ownership, possible infringement, or regulatory compliance of the content the participants upload to the Upstream system. With a potential base of hundreds of thousands of users uploading millions of property records to the Upstream system, it is simply impossible to expect Upstream to verify whether a user’s specific content complies with agreements or policies between a user and third parties.
There are plenty of brokerages that enter their data into an MLS via feeds (not direct input) and multiples more who control syndication to third-parties instead of leveraging their MLS. Will an MLS be held to the same standard? “Dear broker (typically one of the largest in that market), please verify that you have all the appropriate business and compliance agreements in place to every vendor you distribute your data.”
Yet, the “guidelines” impose this obligation on operators of AIM systems. For example, the guidelines provide under Intellectual Property Rights: “A participant’s AIM system must obtain from subscribers and third parties (like photographers) any necessary licenses or assignments, or it must confirm to MLS that the participant has acquired the licenses or assignments by other means.” It is impractical and presumptive for the operator of an AIM system, such as Upstream, to obtain licenses or assignments of licenses from third parties of intellectual property rights in content maintained by users in an AIM system database. Again, the agreement is between the broker and the vendor; not Upstream. Imagine if you signed up for G-Suite and they made you prove you were sharing data with your accountant in a “compliant” fashion if you decide to share it using Google Drive. If the MLS requires such licenses or assignments, the duty to secure them should be on the MLS, or their members via their participation agreements, not the AIM system provider.
The guidelines additionally impose under “Compliance with MLS Business Rules” that “Any AIM system must implement the business rules and policies that MLS adopts and are binding on participants. MLS will provide these rules to participants, subscribers and their third-party partners subject to a license agreement.” Again, this guideline suggests that the AIM system provider conforms the participant’s data to the MLS’ rules. Upstream is a user-controlled database. Upstream doesn’t manage the data, the brokers do. I’m President and CEO of UpstreamRE, and I have no access to the production environment or data by design. We can implement interface options that influence “best practice” behavior, but Upstream like every MLS serves at the pleasure of its members.
There are other examples, such as those covering seller authorization to withhold a listing, etc. They fall under the same rubric where the enforcement of obtaining such documents are between the broker and the MLS and/or vendor and not the data platform (Upstream, Google Drive, etc.).
In summary, it is prudent for the MLS community to adopt policies governing MLS participants’ use of AIM systems to transmit content to MLS databases. Such policies should address technology interfaces between the AIM and MLS databases. But compliance with MLS rules and intellectual property rights or assignments should be, as is the case today, strictly matters between the MLSs and their participants.
By Alex Lange, President and CEO
There has been significant progress in the MLS community to support their members. I applaud the efforts of the MLS Roundtable, the COVE Group, and CMLS. So much progress has been made towards standards, MLS consolidation, and even new features. The relationship between the brokerages and MLS community has improved since Craig Cheatham’s infamous “You’ve Got 10 Days,” speech at CMLS in 2013.
Not surprisingly, while attending the T3 Summit, multiple people from the MLS and vendor community asked me a pointed question: “Can’t the brokers declare victory?”
The simple answer, “it depends.” If the objective was for the brokerage and MLS communities to work better together, then I’d say “yes.” If the objective was to improve the MLS process whether it was listing entry, management or distribution, then I say, “we’ve come a long way.” But the question posed by my industry friends presumes Upstream is limited to property/listing/MLS data.
The original RFP sought a solution to manage brokerage data with these attributes:
Many gravitate to listings, but the RFP explicitly requested management of:
A system that manages the six data sets and gives brokers the tools to improve efficiency and control doesn’t exist. We’ve discussed the Upstream’s add/edit capabilities, RESO standards alignment, granular distribution control, etc. But there are scenarios with the other data sets that some argue lend far more value to the broker than listings management.
Let’s look at firm and agent record. The average time to onboard a new agent for most brokerages is two hours. You must enter their information into various internal systems and depending on the firm, may need to provision a website, give them access to a CRM, create accounts with your CMA provider, etc. Vendors that integrate with Upstream instantly know when a new agent has been added and can create accounts, etc. automatically regardless if that vendor even uses property data. Now consider the effort when you acquire an entirely new office? More important, the hygiene when an agent leaves typically isn’t systematic. How many agents have left your firm, yet they still have access to that CMA tool you provide because nobody went into the system to close their account? Upstream provides the ecosystem to automate the process.
How many sites does an agent create a profile? Internal sites, personal sites, portals all seek agent profile information. Upstream will allow agents to manage their profile information and photos in one place.
The employee record shouldn’t be overlooked especially as teams become more prevalent. Upstream allows brokers to delegate data management and distribution control to anyone they find makes their company more efficient. Often teams' members are not licensed practitioners because their role doesn’t mandate it. Listing and transaction coordinators and administrative staff no longer must share passwords which clean up the audit trail when tracking changes.
Upstream provides a clear dashboard to manage vendors and distribution. You will always know who received your data, when they received it, and if there were errors, etc. Adding new vendors is easy, and if you chose a new vendor already on the system, you can give them access and be up and running in minutes without multi-jurisdictional agreements.
There are additional scenarios regarding event triggers. Vendors can poll for changes in the data to automate processes. A new listing is added… create a single property website. Status changed… create a transaction room. Agent leaves… clawback broker purchased leads. You get my point. You now have an ecosystem that allows you to partner with all your vendors and create amazing efficiencies.
Again, the MLS community has done amazing things in recent years to support their brokers and agents. These changes have been spearheaded by the most progressive firms and they’ve been great partners. However, I look forward to consolidation efforts as many brokerages span multiple MLSs, and until the entire ecosystem has adopted their efforts, brokers must manage to the lowest common denominator.
The efficiencies and control that brokerages seek span diverse data sets, geographies, and vendors. Optimization so they can better focus on their core business requires unification, standardization, secure common access, and the ability to evolve their business without constraint.
This is why “victory” remains elusive.
by Alex Lange, CEO of Upstream
Ahhh…. March Madness. I love everything about it. Team dynamics, competition, and the sheer will to win. If you give any credence to the media, you'd think there's a game to be won within the real estate industry for control of data management. That's understandable. Looking at how our industry has been evolved over the past 18 months, it’s clear that most data vendors and portals also see the need for an "Upstream like" data repository. Many vendors and portals (and some MLS’s) have either introduced one or are working on one.
So, we seem to have a consensus that property data must be better managed, and perhaps in a single source location. The question is no longer "is it needed?" but "who is the best entity to create and operate the database?" Every entity creating their personal "Upstream" is fighting to obtain a significant critical mass of data to ensure they become the standard for data management and control.
Vendors will position their "Upstream" as a free (or nearly free) incentive to leverage your collective data to get you to commit to their products and services. There is no free lunch: what is given away up front always has a price somewhere down the line. It’s a familiar model that portals have used to move into a control position for consumer website interaction. As an industry, we gave up that position of control and without efforts like Upstream, are precariously headed there again.
To be clear, these are not evil companies trying to destroy our industry. They rely on our industry for their livelihood, but make no mistake: they do not share our goals and objectives. They are looking to monetize the data for the benefit of their company, while brokers are looking to manage the data to benefit our industry. There’s nothing wrong with either, but the two will not always be aligned. The good news is that both a for-profit and an industry centered solution will benefit the consumer in cleaner, more accurate data so consumer benefit need not be drawn into the conversation.
A neutral, standards-based, database is more likely to offer an open, vendor-agnostic platform. It would foster vendor competition by forcing their focus on industry and consumer benefits. Any vendor-based solution will have the potential of favoring their system- like the way Microsoft dominated the office productivity suite for so long.
Can a third-party vendor do a better job than Upstream in creating a single database for brokers and agents? Possibly. However, the industry collectively asked: What would we do differently if we started over? How can we improve distribution to consumers while maintaining control of our data? After all, we are also trustees, with a fiduciary duty to our customers. Our listings contain the home information of our customers, and we are duty bound, by law, to steward that information in a manner subject to the highest standard of care. The answer is Upstream, and together we have the resources and talent to make it the industry standard for data management. But it will require a collective effort, and if I wasn’t clear before; it is in the best interest of every vendor creating a competing product to attempt to break up that collective effort.
Some of you may have concerns about the cost of Upstream and the massive number of moving parts to get it up and running. Fortunately, the competing products all have similar issues and may wind up helping Upstream through some of the logistical issues. There are also some concerns about RPR; which are all issues to understand and manage. However, none of these concerns measure up to giving up control of your data to a third party whose goal is to maximize your data’s value for their company’s benefit. Ask yourself: who is most likely to have the best interest of the brokers and sales associates at heart? Even if Upstream does not fulfill its promise, the solution is to continue trying, not simply rolling over and allow a third party to step in again and own our data repository and forgo our fiduciary responsibility.
I’m sure many of you are comfortable with a portal/vendor model of Upstream. After all, it follows a free market concept of competitors fighting for your data to drive down costs. However, those competitors have a single focus, to be the only collective source of your data. It will stop being a "free market" solution when they consolidate into a single provider, resulting in the same situation you complain about now with listing portals. Upstream seeks the economies of scale that a single platform provides while maintaining that only the broker should control their data assets.
Sadly, the fragmented nature of our industry has allowed vendors such as newspapers, relocation companies, and web portals to build very strong businesses by essentially strip-mining our resources. Sometimes, these outside vendors have been the best solution. However, listing information is one of the core assets of our industry; it makes the most sense for it to be stewarded by the practitioners who bear the fiduciary responsibility.
Viewing these entities as competitors forces us to make comparisons, and comparing each offering feature by feature is merely a race to the bottom. When you honestly evaluate core values, stakeholders served, profit motive, and where control is centered, the difference is ‘night and day.’ 2017 can be the year of the practitioners. Let’s take back control of our data assets as a team. Let’s be intentional in our outcomes. Let’s not forget… when it comes to your business, this is not a game.
We seek to create efficiencies by reducing redundant entry, help brokers distribute deliberately by giving them control over who can access their data and inspire innovation by removing artificial barriers when the broker allows.