Setting data free in Australia's real estate industry

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February 20, 2014
4
min read

This blog is about APIs and data standards in Australia's real estate industry. If you don't know much about APIs and want to know more before you push through this content, take a look at this post.I originally set out to write this blog post about how brilliant and visionary we are as a company. I wanted to write about how amazing our "API" and "platform" is, why "REAXML" is just "OK" and how we can solve all the problems in everyone's lives... but then I thought we should deal with one thing at a time.To truly understand the benefits of what we're doing you need some background on how everything currently works, how applications interact with each other in the real estate industry and why the way we exchange data now is problematic.The Current Standard for Data ExchangeThe primary driver of standards for data exchange in the real estate industry to date has been private companies requiring access to listing data for marketing purposes.It's a fairly well known fact that the format developed by realestate.com.au (REAXML), however flawed, is the de-facto standard for the exchange of Listing Data in Australia. There are a couple of alternatives to REAXML made by a few of the bigger players (REIWA, REIV, Domain), however the difference is largely semantic and the core process is the same.The process for the exchange is as follows: 1. An agent using a compatible real estate CRM makes a change to a listing. 2. After some time (sometimes seconds, minutes, hours or days depending on the CRM) a XML file representing the listing data is packaged up and uploaded via FTP to any number of portals that the agency advertises on. 3. After some more time the portals will process the uploaded files and update their internal databases. 4. A few of the portals will send back a response indicating the results of the processing. On rare occasions this includes sufficient detail to programatically determine if the feed was successful. 5. Due to performance requirements and caching, there is generally a further delay (sometimes several hours), before the changes are visible on these portals.To be blunt, the process isn't great. It has several points of possible failure and often requires blind faith from an agent that the changes they input at step 1 will successfully be pushed through to the 15 different portals the agency advertises on.There are a lot of problems with the above process - the biggest being that it only really works due to the diligence of agents in following up both portals and CRMs when updates don't go through successfully.Why do we use it?... or Self Perpetuating Adoption / Lazy DevelopersRex uploads to over 30 portals. Every few months a new portal arrives and agencies subscribe to it. If a portal doesn't allow feeding to it via the REAXML format its quite likely to fail - CRM developers aren't going to want to spend a week adding support for a new "up and coming" portal with 12 agencies subscribing to it that might disappear next week (for more discussion read this article).If the portal does support REAXML its normally just a case of switching a new feed on - something that takes a few minutes by a senior member of staff.It Works so who cares?REAXML has become an ingrained standard in the industry. It has become the standard for the exchange of listing data and has caused stagnation in the development of standards for accessing any other kind of data.To this day, realestate.com.au's sole form of data exchange with the outside world is XML listing feeds in, XML listing dumps out. There is no ability to pull even the simplest and most critical information like stats about listing views (and from what we've been told there's nothing coming) - most of the other portals are no better.The CRM providers (present company excluded of course) have taken a similar viewpoint - as long as listing data can be exported they've provided all the access that anyone could possibly ever need. Put aside the fact that every department and role in an agency from sales, to property management, to BDM, to accounts, to marketing, to management uses these systems on a daily basis - no one could possibly want to access anything beyond information about current listings. Why would anyone ever want to push themselves ahead of the competition or add a point of difference? Surely an agency couldn't possibly want to analyse their data in real time, build iPad apps, website integrations or any other number of alternative interfaces to their data?Moving ForwardThe first step to getting better is recognising you're sick. The Australian real estate software industry - once at the forefront of technology in business has become complacent and slow to adapt. While products in other industries are increasingly opening up every aspect of their applications and data to external access to encourage innovation, our industry keeps marching forward eyes wide shut.The real estate industry, like other industries, should open itself up from a data perspective. Setting data free facilitates unimaginable innovation because it opens up vehicles for other people to build amazing new things. The industry needs it to evolve.CRM providers, the portals and other data providers, who are ultimately service providers to agencies, need to open up to give their clients the opportunity to harness the data they create. Agencies need this to build on top of the products they use to add value to their service, improve internal business processes and take advantage of other open platforms.18 months ago we committed to redeveloping our CRM from a closed off application with a few integration "hooks" into a 100% api driven platform that we could use to fundamentally shift the part that real estate CRM's play in an organisation.We've adopted it and to our great excitement two major property data providers are opening up their APIs following some internal policy shifts (thank you PriceFinder and RPData) - its a great start but if we want our customers to stay relevant, more needs to be done!We hope this encourages more CRM and portal providers to open up their data more fully.

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