“We talk about disruptors in the industry, but if you’ve been around in the industry long enough, you realize that the greatest disruptors are our members themselves,” says Bill Duce, executive officer of the Kitchener-Waterloo Association of Realtors.
Duce was part of the team that recently co-ordinated an agreement between two regional real estate MLS systems in Ontario. In January, the Ontario Collective (OC) – representing more than 5,000 Realtors and comprising 12 boards and associations – and the Ontario Regional Technology & Information Systems (ORTIS), representing 8,500 regional Realtors and 10 boards, signed a transition agreement to combine their two separate MLS systems into one comprehensive regional one. Technically not a merger, it will allow members of all the boards to access listings across the system.
It is projected to go live in the first quarter of 2020.
“Our members do the same job, they have the same needs, the same wants, the same concerns that are keeping them awake at night,” says Duce, adding that with ORTIS and OC joining hands, their members are better served collectively than they would be individually. “It’s that whole concept of we smarter than me,” he says.
More than a year ago, the groups came to the realization that Realtors and consumers were doing most of their real estate research online and that “the access to data had blown way beyond what anybody thought it would be,” says Kati Strickland, project manager of the OC. After a few initial and minor integrations between the two groups to access each other’s data, the synergies and the overlapping boundaries between the two became clear quickly.
With each of the 22 partner associations having their own history, maintaining a singular vision and managing their expectations has been, so far, the greatest project hurdle for ORTIS and OC. “It’s like going out with a group of friends and agreeing to have dinner, but then deciding where exactly to eat in order to accommodate everyone’s diet and preferences,” says Duce.
While correcting legacy issues inherited through years of data duplication, directors of ORTIS and OC remain mindful that the transition project “isn’t just about giving our members what they had before but with more data, but also enhancing the quality and amount of services in order to support brokers’ and salespeoples’ ability to be competitive in the current and future real estate landscape,” says Duce.
On the technical side of the operation, the biggest challenges were to ensure that the “database fields and selections captured the diverse needs of all 22 of the associations involved,” says Steve Francis, vice president of information services at ORTIS. One of the goals was mapping to the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) standard to provide users a superior interface with the data from IDX, websites, apps and other marketing technology. Albeit tedious, Francis adds that it was “a necessity, since doing so ensured we future-proofed the system and designed a database that will directly benefit the members and consumers.”
With the transition to an integrated MLS well underway, ORTIS and the OC have launched IntraMatrix, a system that allows Realtors of both groups to access each other’s data. The only drawback is that it’s not one database.
The advantage, says ORTIS chair Brad Johnstone, is that members now have access to all the data that, in the past, they could access only as members of multiple boards. “As an interim measure, it’s very positive. The goal will be when we go live on our new system, that duplication will be removed and Realtors and consumers will have one complete database,” says Johnstone.
Recognizing that Realtors will have a learning curve to adjust to the new and integrated MLS system, Johnstone foresees online and townhall meetings, along with live training sessions for their members, to ensure they have a full understanding of how to work with the changed system.
Allaying fears that some members might have of losing their autonomy, Steve Dickie, chair of the OC says, “In any board you’ll have agents who work in the interior of that geography and from their perspective, that may not affect them very much, but it’s mostly the agents who work on the borderlands of the board who’ve, in the past, been forced to belong in two or three or multiple boards to get at the data. Now they don’t have to do that.”
The integrated MLS system is set to work equally well across all types of properties with greater focus on commercial and waterfront properties. “There are certain boards that are more recreational, more waterfront, commercial or industrial. But by ORTIS and the OC coming together, we’re taking the best of everybody’s input and building a better system,” says Johnstone.