Six Questions to Answer on Brokers’ MLS Data (LEAP Part 1)

 – Background: the most recent version of CMLS Data Access Concepts Workgroup’s LEAP draft has been shared, but not yet approved by the CMLS board of directors. –

The real estate industry is pursuing a solution to liberate MLS data for the brokerage community to use in serving consumers. A path toward this solution was first proposed by brokers at RESO’s Fall Conference in St. Louis in September of 2019. 

That idea became the NOW Policy proposal. After iterating through conferences, brokerage consultation, and trade group feedback with The Realty Alliance and Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, the work was handed off to Council of MLS. The culmination of the discussions thus far is embodied in CMLS’ draft Listing Exchange and Access Policy (LEAP) draft.

In this article we’ll identify the problem being addressed, explain the proposed solution, answer questions, and document the process ahead. 

“What problem are we trying to solve?” 

Since that first meeting with RESO, the brokers’ answer has been straightforward. Current policy on data access and usage is disjointed, complex, and unnecessarily burdensome. They want:

  • All of the MLS data
  • In one efficient data access method
  • With one holistic set of rules for usage

Any kind of data that a broker can get in the MLS’s primary user interface, the broker should be able to get, at a minimum, in LEAP. LEAP will be an MLS policy proposed to NAR to create this single access and usage rules model. MLSs protect the integrity of data, and LEAP will include MLS protections in line with the rules that exist today at NAR. Those rules will be streamlined so as not to impede efficient data access and usage.

The State of MLS/Broker Cooperation

Understanding the current landscape is important. MLSs are fighting battles on multiple fronts. Class action lawsuits, DOJ investigations, shape-shifting participants and other national policy mandates can all draw attention away from brokers’ primary data needs. LEAP can assist MLSs in these issues by expanding access and transparency for broker participants. A comprehensive policy to ensure equal treatment of participants is critical.

In recent years, brokerage and MLS trade organizations have forged stronger, more collaborative ties in seeking efficiency improvements. LEAP is a challenge they are facing together for mutual benefit.

Illustrating the Problem: The Broker’s Data Dilemma

Betty Broker needs MLS data for multiple purposes. She accesses 3 different kinds of MLS data feeds: IDX for public display purposes, VOW for broker-client interactions, and BBO for back office needs. 

Although much of this data overlaps between data feeds, Betty has to get this data three different ways because of the disparate policies and rule sets that define what each data set can be used for.

This multi-silo data access process is already complex. But Betty also works in 3 MLSs. She lists properties and downloads the data from 3 different MLSs, in 3 different feeds each, with 3 different sets of rules each.

The same listing at 123 Main St is in each of these MLSs, and in each of these data sets. To access and use this one listing, Betty may need to do so 12 different ways because there are up to 12 different rule sets (9 local and 3 national) for her to follow.

Brokers Penalized for Growth

As Betty grows her company, the barriers to her progress multiply in lockstep. She is penalized by design for her success, as more disparate local rule sets emerge with every new MLS she joins.

Most brokers work in, or aspire to expand into, multiple MLSs. Being one of those growth-focused brokers, Betty feels like current policy enforces rules through artificial data access hurdles, assuming she can’t follow rules on her own.

“But IDX and VOW are working fine.”

Betty’s experience illustrates that current policy does “work” today, but it works the way reeling up a bucket of water from a well works. It might suffice if it were the only choice, but the industry has the opportunity to hook up to city water and turn on the sink.

The concepts of IDX and VOW may feel comfortably familiar to some. But they’re painfully archaic for brokers like Betty. As she expands to new MLSs, she grits her teeth and smiles her way through the labyrinth of data access committees and rules, hoping to not tick off a yet-to-be identified data gatekeeper. 

Betty needs the industry to know how bad things really are. But she doesn’t protest these struggles publicly to avoid being identified as a complainant by a committee or board that might retaliate in her data access efforts. Between brokers, though, this is a common and consistent topic of commiseration. LEAP’s single access policy and rules provide brokers and MLSs a solution to consider.

Next Steps

Upon submission to NAR, there are a number of committees that would review and potentially move the policy on further toward ratification.

The committees are listed in order of their reviews and votes:

  • NAR MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board (TEIAB)
  • NAR Multiple Listing Issues and Policies committee (MLIPC)
  • NAR Executive Committee (EC)
  • NAR Board of Directors (BOD)

Importantly, even though the members of these committees are already set, any and all voices can influence the shape of the policy as it is working through the TEIAB, MLIPC, and BOD process. As we’ve seen in recent years, meetings have taken on a more agile style to include timely stakeholder input and ensure the best results are produced for consideration by the BOD.

Six Questions to be Answered

These are the major question that the industry needs to analyze, based on a reading of LEAP and comparison to current policies:

1. When LEAP is enacted, should IDX and VOW policies:

  • Be deleted altogether, since brokers will have all capabilities from IDX and VOW in LEAP, or
  • Be kept alongside LEAP for a transition period

Some have suggested that IDX and VOW policies should be completely replaced immediately upon adoption of LEAP. Technically, LEAP encompasses all of the benefits that exist in the older policies. 

There are also suggestions that during a transition period IDX and VOW should stay in place to support brokers that aren’t immediately ready to move to LEAP. And there are pragmatic reasons to consider keeping these policies in parallel with LEAP for a period of time. As long as brokers have the choice of LEAP, efficiency can move forward.

2. Should Advertising Brokers (not the Listing Brokers):

  • Be able to display LEAP listings anywhere (excluding currently defined inappropriate forums) as long as the advertisement prominently promotes the name and contact information of the Listing Broker, or
  • Keep the same requirements for displaying listings and listing broker information from IDX policy?

LEAP differs significantly from IDX in how it manages brokers’ marketing of other brokers’ listings. While IDX simply requires prominent placement of the listing brokerage name on the display, LEAP offer a broader concept:

All Listing Brokers grant permission for any Advertising Broker to display any listing submitted to the service by the Listing Broker only if:

The Participant, or its Designee, has sufficient independent control to add, edit, and delete the advertised listing.

The listing display or advertisement is clear so that a reasonable real estate consumer understands:
a) Who is the Listing Broker,
b) Who is the Advertising Broker and
c) How to contact that Listing Broker.
There shall be a rebuttable presumption that it is clear to a reasonable real estate consumer that the Advertising Broker is not the Listing Broker if the advertisement includes all Advertising.

This facet of LEAP is likely to generate a wide range of opinions: should the listing agent be identified? Who gets to choose the contact information included in the advertisement? Which new fields and processes would an MLS have to implement to designate this preferred listing broker advertising information?

In the originally proposed NOW Policy, listing broker attribution matched the attribution policy from IDX. This change in LEAP is a big swing and the new Advertising Broker concept could be a big win for brokers and transparency. But it could also be easily separated from LEAP if necessary, as data access was the primary focus of this effort. 

3. Should usage rights for different kinds of LEAP fields exist as:

  • A list maintained by MLSs for their data consumers that designates each field’s usage rights, and/or
  • A technical flag in the data payload that defines these display/brokerage/private usage capabilities for technology implementers.

The concept of identifying data usage rights directly within the data set is not new. RESO talked about this concept in 2015 and it is technically viable. The conversation has already restarted on how to identify the different kinds of data usage rights within a data payload. 

The data fields in LEAP need to be categorized for data consumers into (1) public display fields (currently IDX), (2) brokerage-client only fields (currently found in VOW), and (3) private fields (back office). There are also fields that should not be delivered to participants, such as member passwords.

RESO’s Data Dictionary could provide a significant starting point with 1,000 fields that could be defined as public/client/private fields. But MLSs’ local data sets extend beyond the Data Dictionary and it would be up to each MLS to set the usage flags for each of its custom local fields.

It’s important to note that MLS custom local fields are supported by RESO. Standard Data Dictionary fields must be followed if an MLS is describing the same Data Dictionary field feature. But an MLS data set may include custom local items that should be displayed (common examples are Miles To Volcano in Hawaii or Ski Up Backyard in Colorado) that only exist in a single market. MLSs will need to identify which of their local fields are for public display (probably already in their local IDX data set) and those local fields which need to remain private for back office usage.

Rules compliance would benefit greatly by technologists and brokers not having to interpret field usage: it would be baked directly into the data.

4. Should MLS participants be required to share their listings for display to participate in LEAP? 

The foundation of MLS is brokers cooperating in mutual display of listings. If a brokerage doesn’t agree to allow other brokers to display its listing for sale, should that brokerage be afforded the benefit of the cooperative’s multi-usage data access service?

5. Can traditional MLS listings be displayed on broker websites alongside other kinds of listings?

Brokers don’t only source IDX listings. They also get data feeds for VOW, from data shares, new construction, FSBOs, and other sources. NAR policy allows for optional rules wherein MLSs require brokers to silo the display of IDX listings from other listings.

Do consumer demands mandate that brokers be allowed to show all listings in a single user interface for efficiency? Or should listings acquired via LEAP be required to be segmented away from any other listings?

6. What additional usage verbiage is needed in this policy to provide comprehensive compliance guidance?

This verbiage in LEAP provides a foundation for a massive streamlining in brokers’ data usage rulesets:

Associations of REALTORS® and their multiple listing services shall enable MLS  Participants to display aggregated MLS listing content by electronic means in  accordance with this policy. MLSs may not impose any limitations, restrictions or  conditions on the use or display of the MLS listing content other than as specified in this  policy. Except as provided elsewhere in this policy or in an MLSs rules and regulations, a Participant may not distribute, provide, or make any portion of the MLS listing content available to any person or entity.

If all of the restrictions on usage are to be contained within one policy, are there additional items to add? Should a single model license accompany the policy? Does MLS Grid’s multi-MLS license provide a starting point? Mike Wurzer from FBS posted some interesting questions on licensing (which I believe take us down a deeper business model rabbit hole than necessary, but it’s still an important conversation).

This is another area where LEAP took a big swing that NOW didn’t. It’s an important statement to illustrate that 600 MLSs with different rules for 1800 different data sets is a nightmare for brokers. Is it likely to make it through the trade organization gates and into policy? It’s another module of LEAP that could be detached from the rest of the policy if needed.

 Derivative works, status-based display changes, licensing needs: many more items should be addressed upfront as broadly as possible. Brokers want to follow the rules, by and large. They just want them to be consistent. A policy and license that allows brokers to experiment in a transparent way with the MLS will accelerate broker innovation.

Industry Feedback

There are some other minor changes in timing for service and display updates in LEAP vs. current IDX policy, but those are not the meat of the discussion. The six previous questions need our focus.

All industry participants have been asked to deliver feedback on LEAP. RESO has been asked to focus, in particular, on the technical designation of fields for display, broker/client usage, and private back office usage. 

There are still a number of gates to pass through. The industry should ask questions and debate answers now. The brokerage community is (somewhat) patiently waiting for results.

Let’s start talking now. Thanks to the many industry leaders who keep this conversation moving.

 – See Part 2: MLS Town – Raising Speed Limits, Tolling Roads – 


Note: Changes to display of non-sold price data in non-disclosure states and counties is included in a draft of LEAP, but that issue has already been taken up by the NAR MLS TEIAB. LEAP discussions can leave that topic aside.


PS: If you’re looking for a forum of smart brokers to discuss this topic with, request an invite here.

Author

  • All opinions expressed herein are personal opinions and do not constitute the position or views of any organization. Sam DeBord is CEO of Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO). He has two decades of experience in the real estate industry, spanning real estate brokerages, mortgage lending, and technology consulting. He has served as President’s Liaison for MLS and Data Management with the National Association of REALTORS®, a REACH mentor, and on the board of directors for NAR, Second Century Ventures, and California Regional MLS. Sam began his career as a management consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is a recognized real estate industry writer for publications including REALTOR® Magazine, Inman News, and the Axiom Business Books Award-Winning Swanepoel Trends Report.

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