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Craig Cheatham’s unforgettable entrance as co-moderator of “The Fate of Data Control” panel during RISMedia’s Real Estate CEO Exchange last week captured how many brokers feel about the ongoing data struggle. Making his way through the Yale Club’s crowded Grand Ballroom, Cheatham gave the event’s nearly 200 attendees a chance to see the back of his slings-and-arrows-festooned jacket, a sight gag that garnered lots of laughs, but that also provided visual representation for Cheatham’s difficult role in today’s data revolution.

data control 2 “I’m happy to advocate for those who serve the front lines of the real estate industry,” said the Realty Alliance president and CEO during his opening remarks at the Yale Club in New York City. “Representing 71 member companies, the Realty Alliance is fighting the good fight on their behalf, as well as all brokers. When it comes to data control, to be on the side of brokers is the right side to be on.”

The Fate of Data Control session on Sept. 16 addressed the pros and cons of the current movement toward broker control of data through Project Upstream and the National Broker Public Portal, and the implications both have for the nation’s MLS system. RISMedia President & CEO John Featherston co-moderated the panel with Cheatham, which was comprised of: David Charron, president and CEO, MRIS; Dale Ross, CEO, Realtors Property Resource®; Bob Hale, president and CEO, Houston Association of REALTORS®; Tom Hosack, CEO and president, Northwood Realty Services; and Victor Lund, founding partner, WAV Group, and CEO, RE Technology.

“Brokers have entrusted data management to vendors and other industry institutions,” said Cheatham. “We thought it was good idea, but looking back, perhaps we might have done something different. It was like we were driving the car, but gave the wheel to someone else and climbed in the back. Now we’re climbing back over the seat and getting behind the wheel again.”

data control 4Cheatham provided CEO Exchange attendees with an overview of Project Upstream, which he described as the “brainchild of a broad-based coalition of brokers and franchises.” Cheatham emphasized that Upstream is not a large broker project, but rather encompasses firms of all sizes that are committed to regaining control of the accuracy and distribution of real estate data. “Brokers will not lose governance of the project, there will be no future sale, no IPO,” he stated. “Upstream is not an MLS, it is not a public advertising medium. It will be a back-office solution that will become as foundational to real estate and integral to everyday life as the MLS has been.”

The overarching goal of Upstream is to put a system in place that solves the issue of data accuracy, once and for all. As Cheatham emphasized, myriad data fields are currently entered as often as 80 times, by many different hands, increasing the risk of errors at any given level. Upstream, conversely, would allow agents to enter information one time, into one platform that determines where the data goes and under what terms it is distributed.

“Right now, other entities are making decisions about your data,” said Cheatham. “Upstream will help return the leverage to the brokerage community, instead of being asked to give the data away for others to profit, while we work for free.”

Realtors Property Resource (RPR) serves as the technical engine behind Upstream, and already houses information on 160 million properties, 120 million of which are residential. When an agent gets a listing, they will be able to attach it to the property record already within RPR. Other distribution portals, such as Zillow, realtor.com, and MLSs will then be given permission to pull the data fields they need from Upstream.

“Upstream provides one point of entry that gets locked down,” said Dale Ross. “No one else touches it but you. This allows you to totally protect and control the distribution of your listing data.”

data control 3Victor Lund’s organization is offering critical technology services to both Project Upstream and the National Broker Public Portal, the front-end distribution system for real estate data. Having just come from a meeting on the progress of the Broker Public Portal, Lund said, “We believe we’ll be able to build a website that will deliver on the expectations of what’s currently offered today.”

Representing one of the largest MLS systems in the country, David Charron spoke for the some 40,000 Mid-Atlantic real estate professionals his organization represents. “It’s hard to argue with the premise of Upstream,” he said. “The objectives are noble and appropriate. But the devil is in the details. If you want to create chaos in the marketplace, turn the MLS off for a day. I’m anxious to hear how the transaction will happen.”

That said, Charron supports the mission. “When information is so ubiquitous, attention becomes expensive,” he remarked. “It was hard for me to rail against third-party charges when we were doing the same thing. The object of Upstream is for the broker to retain control. If there’s a singular point of input, then information becomes easier to copyright. You’ll find us (MRIS) supportive, yet constructive critics.”

Bob Hale represented the association point of view. “You wonder why it took so long to come up with the idea,” he said. “HAR.com is the only website in a market where Zillow is not number one. Every broker in Texas will participate in Upstream. Right now, we have to go to every MLS and beg them for our listings.”

“Upstream is paramount for us to take control of property data with one entry point,” said Ross. “If we drive consolidation of the MLS, that is a game changer in how data is distributed. Keep in mind that Google is circling the wagons. We have to do everything we can to protect our data—that is the goal of Upstream. It’s a really tough project, but is it worth doing and worth spending money on? Yes.”

data control 5While Tom Hosack runs one of Ohio’s largest real estate firms, and also serves as chairman of the board for The Realty Alliance, he represented the views of the individual broker during the session. “For those of you trying to understand what everyone’s talking about, I’m your guy—I don’t speak Star Trek either,” he joked. “A lot of brokers don’t understand what’s happening with data and technology in our firms.  We’re now bound to 11 different databases, which is far too many. What we really need is the history of the consumer. There are people circling our industry and our agents saying, ‘don’t do the prospecting, rather just pay us a monthly fee.’ If we can’t be in that space to help our agents, then what is our value proposition to them? We have to be in the business of mining our data. We have to be able to better cultivate leads. We need to have one consistent place for data so we can accurately do the things we need to do.”

According to the panel, the ultimate beneficiary of Upstream and the Broker Public Portal will be the consumer. “Why do we use Uber? Why do watch Netflix instead of TV? Because it’s easier, it’s better, it’s faster and we love it,” said Hale. “We can talk about data protection, but if we don’t give consumers what they want, someone else will.”

“The appetite to invest in real estate data is enormous,” said Lund. “Upstream and the Broker Public Portal is tantamount to the creation of the National Parks. It’s a safe place for your data and provides consumers with a safe place to go.”

data control 1Widespread MLS buy-in, however, will be a difficult path to traverse. “[MLSs] don’t want to give themselves up to some larger entity,” said Charron. “But consolidation happens and expansion happens. If MRIS and TREND are willing to say, ‘let’s consider blowing this thing up,’ than others should too.”

“All of these things are tools that give power back to the brokers to make decisions,” said Hosack. “If we don’t get in front of this thing, it will be Uber flying past us and leaving us behind.

Stay tuned for more reporting from RISMedia’s 2015 CEO Exchange.

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