Rechanneling the Data Flow

Project Upstream promises to transform the listing data space. What does this initiative mean for MLSs?

October 28, 2015

A wave of nervous laughter swept the crowded ballroom that August morning during the National Association of REALTORS® Leadership Summit in Chicago. Leigh Brown, ABR, CRS, partner at Charlotte, N.C. based RE/MAX Executive Realty, had just asked a question that played on the minds of many in attendance: Could Project Upstream lead to a national MLS?

Upstream is a proposal from a coalition of brokers and franchises supported by NAR that will allow listing data to be entered into one system, standardized, and distributed to MLSs and portals according to the business policies of the broker that owns the listing. Industry leaders sharing the stage with Brown were prepared for the inquiry. Cary Sylvester, vice president of technology innovation and communication at Keller Williams, responded with an analogy from the airline industry. When American Airlines and IBM got together to create the Sabre computer system in the 1950s, they were trying to solve a problem of fragmented airline booking systems and scattered passenger data. She says today’s brokers and data vendors—who are seeking to both share and protect data—face a similar challenge.

“You look at what Sabre was, and it’s what Upstream [intends to be], which is, let’s get the common information together so we can meet those consumer demands,” Sylvester said, noting that Sabre frees individual airlines to create new tools much as Upstream is expected to do. “It didn’t change anything in that area of how I deal with individual airlines, but what it allowed is now every single flight is in one central system so now [airlines] can innovate on top of that.”

A contract between NAR, technology provider REALTORS Property Resource®, and UpstreamRE LLC to develop the Upstream technology is expected to be finalized soon. [Update: The final agreement was announced Nov. 5. For more information, read "NAR Inks Tech Agreement with Upstream."] While the goal of Project Upstream is to give brokers greater control over the security and distribution of their listing data and a place to manage consumer, agent, franchise, and vendor information, MLSs will be watching closely as the technology evolves. Little disruption is expected for local MLSs because the ground expertise and legal knowledge they provide brokerages cannot be replaced by technology.

Shelley Specchio, CEO of Northern Nevada Regional MLS and president of the Council of Multiple Listing Services’ board, agrees local MLSs have an important role to play in governing cooperation and compensation and in providing personalized service to members. “It’s more than just the data. It’s the coming together of people who want to have a fluid marketplace,” she says, noting that local differences in land use can change the data entry needs for a given area. “Questions need to be answered with that local expertise.”

Specchio says Project Upstream has stirred anxiety among CMLS members and MLS staff, but she recommends they focus on continuing their improvements for brokers. “Everybody’s curious: ‘Is this going to impact me?’ ” she says. “But you need to lead your organization to what’s best. Do what you can now to be the best.”

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.