Application programming interfaces (API) open the internal architecture of a service to others. The most popular data sources accessible through a published API include household names such as Facebook, Google Maps, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Flickr and Pinterest. For example, you can see a map of nearby restaurants on Yelp because it uses the Google Maps API to combine store locations with pop-up Yelp user ratings.
Open architecture in the real estate realm works the same way, or it should. No matter the task or desired tools, an open system––a standardized database with available API connectors––will allow any authorized application to connect through an API to retrieve requested data. The open system would allow agents and brokers to do the work they want to do, like listing agents who may only need CMA and market research tools or buyer agents who may only need property search and tour info. Currently, though, the MLS industry of today runs on a small collection of proprietary database systems that are closed to access by any outside software.
Real estate is not alone in trying to find ways to better manage and expose data. Most are finding the API approach to be part of the solution.
Casting aside current perceptions of the airline industry, 20 years ago they took the lead by developing an API for accessing flight reservation data. The airlines did this so they could view current inventories in real time and sell tickets across multiple carriers. As a result, we (the consumers) experienced an explosion in online travel services (Travelocity in 1996 followed by Expedia, Kayak, and others), which have all greatly benefited the American consumer.
The Case for Open Architecture
In an open system, agents are not limited to the “one size fits all” default interface offered by the one MLS-chosen vendor. API based systems allow agents to pick Cloud CMA for their listing presentations, Boomtown for their CRM and lead management needs, and TLCEngine for qualifying buyers, all without giving up their live connection to the real-time MLS database.
Such a system would require MLSs to consider a new business model in offering services—one where multiple application vendors compete on the utility and value their applications offer, not just on price. This approach opens the door for a multitude of options the MLS may offer agents and brokers, and through those options, empower subscribers to select only those which enhance their ability to do more business with greater efficiency.
Yet, as discussed, the MLS industry is a network of independent databases that don’t allow outside software access. If a developer wants to sell a software program that uses MLS data, it must acquire a data license and then download the data to a locally hosted database. They cannot access the MLS database directly. To complicate matters, each proprietary MLS database is different, requiring the developer to map the data from each MLS into a common format so the app program can read it.
Data and access standards through an API change that relationship. When adopted by the real estate industry, each MLS database that uses that API can be queried by the new applications directly, without downloading and synchronizing multiple databases. Developers can build the app once and deploy it in hundreds of systems reaching millions of agents. Doing so opens the door to large numbers of new developers who realize increased opportunities for expansion. Their participation will stimulate innovation and bring products to market that would never have been possible before.
For Brokers and Agents, that means a whole new world of options, primarily more choices and greater flexibility.