Data Detours on the Information Highway
OSCRE Tackles Open Specifications for Real Estate Reporting
By Barbara Carss
The real estate industry’s growing reliance on asset, property and/or facilities management software often hits a labour-intensive and error prone bottleneck when buildings are traded or managers and other service providers take on new clients with different software systems.
Electronic data dramatically streamlines reporting and record keeping for administration and operations, and increasingly facilitates new types of monitoring and analysis that more accurately peg building performance and value. But data can’t simply flow from one software operating system to another.
“It would be nice to be able to transfer information over multiple software applications but, right now, chances are you will have to write a custom interface that is very expensive to maintain or someone has to type it in,” observes Peter Altobelli, Vice President and General Manager of Canadian operations for the software developer, Yardi Systems.
The Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate (OSCRE) is working to devise and implement specifications for system interoperability that would allow data to move between disparate systems without need for customized interfaces. It’s an international, voluntary, not-for-profit effort bringing together real estate owners/investors, real estate service providers, software suppliers, industry associations and government agencies in what’s readily recognized as a challenging consensus-building process.
“This kind of standard has happened much more slowly in real estate than in other industries,” acknowledges Catherine Williams, OSCRE’s Chief Executive, who is based in the United Kingdom. “In real estate, you talk about standards after you talk about technology and after you talk about automation.”
Progress is being made, however, as specialized working groups tackle different pieces of the puzzle in three distinct industry domains: investment; facilities management; and residential conveyancing/home buying. For example, OSCRE participants in the U.K. have just launched a pilot project to demonstrate how a newly developed standard for management of leased assets could save time and money.
The goal is to seamlessly transfer property data that the legal department would initially capture in lease documents to other supervisory divisions and service providers that use the information. “This project should ensure that we have the same information on all of our systems irrespective of the software we have all chosen to use,” explains Ian Davies, Head of Information Systems with British Land, which is one of the eight major real estate organizations sponsoring the initiative.
Meanwhile, five software providers have collaborated to develop the import modules for transferring the data into receiving systems – cooperative R&D that will be essential to any wider rollout of standards.
“We need to have the whole supply chain covered,” Williams stresses. “OSCRE is really about flexing all this information that industry organizations need to collect and report regularly so that the software vendors can take it and replicate all that in their systems.”
EFFICIENCY & TRANSPARENCY
OSCRE proponents on this side of the Atlantic are watching the demonstration project with interest. Other OSCRE standards, such as the parameters for the valuation data that pension funds report to the Investment Property Databank (IPD), are already widely in use.
“We have a wide range of clients. Our services go from brokerage to facilities management to asset services to appraisal to global corporate services, and in a lot of cases, we have to customize each of our client’s data and import it into our own system,” notes Raymond Wong, Executive Director, Research, for CB Richard Ellis in North and South America. “It would be a lot more efficient to have a data standard – if there was a template, for example, for appraisal information that we could use for all of our clients rather than having 500 clients with 500 different formats. We as a company are very much interested in participating with OSCRE in establishing standards for the industry.”
Devising that template is both a logistic and psychological challenge, however, as some industry players cling to what they see as their proprietary business practices. Advocates of standardization counter that it’s simply a common business platform that should allow companies to more easily and accurately benchmark their performance against the market.
“Although every landlord feels they have a unique system, really, the underlying elements are quite similar. They may have different terms for the same thing; they may prioritize things differently, but they are essentially the same,” maintains Annette Wilde, Director of Client Services with the data standards specialist and systems integrator, Planimetron Inc..
“There is a lot of value in standardizing terms and standardizing data internally as well as externally, and the biggest value beyond cost savings and possible interoperability is data transparency,” she adds. “If you’re using the same interpretation of data, it is much easier to sell a property, buy a property or get financing for a property. For third party managers, it makes it more feasible to become a manager on behalf of an owner. It’s a competitive advantage.”
Collaboration among software providers may likewise seem counterintuitive, but should actually prompt more innovation and competitiveness, with emerging products that do not require users to invest in pricey custom designed interfaces to their existing systems. “We see this as a positive step forward,” Altobelli asserts.
PUBLIC SECTOR APPLICATIONS
Some major public sector owners and managers are also on-board. Notably, Ralph Collins, Director General of Special Initiatives with Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) leads OSCRE’s facilities management domain in his volunteer time, while his career responsibilities involve bringing standardization to the management of 75 million square feet of office space in 1,855 locations that accommodate 245,000 employees of the Canadian government.
At a seminar earlier this year, he outlined PWGSC’s unfolding efforts to rationalize 22 non-integrated IT systems. The undertaking, which is nearing the implementation stage, is expected to streamline compliance with PWGSC’s mandate to annually record, update and certify information on all federal real property assets.
Another presenter at the seminar, Lora Muchmore, Director for Business Enterprise Integration with the United States Department of Defense (DoD) spoke of OSCRE’s role in tallying and coordinating an extensive, complex and geographically dispersed portfolio. With more than 539,000 real property assets in 5,000 locations in the U.S. and 38 other countries, DoD provided the conditions to thoroughly test OSCRE’s space classification code, especially since the work involves aligning nearly 300 different management systems.
This kind of high-profile participation is key to OSCRE’s goals. “The purpose of the membership is to develop, but also to test and demonstrate the standards. We need to be able to show the efficiencies that have occurred because organizations have automated using the standards,” Williams says.
PROJECT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
Yet, neither software end-users nor providers have been clamouring to take the lead, and OSCRE itself just consolidated into a singular organization in 2009. Previously, OSCRE was confined largely to the Americas, while a similar European initiative was known as PISCES. Although the two organizations were actually working toward interchangeable standards, the separate initiatives discouraged software vendors from participating fully until one standard predominated.
“They were hanging back to see what would unfold,” Williams suggests. “Because there can only be one standard. To have two standards is not a standard.”
Capital is also an issue. “Standardization isn’t free and we don’t want end-users to think the software vendors should bear the entire burden,” she adds.
“The software vendors are passive. They do what their clients pay them to do,” Wilde concurs.
OSCRE plays the project manager role, bringing the two sides together in a not-for-profit yet mutually advantageous partnership. Universal open specifications are the end objective, but they are not the end of the process.
“To get the various constituencies to come up with the standard is one step,” Wong reflects. “The other step is trying to get it implemented within your organization.”
For more information about the Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate, see the web site at www.oscre.org.