Unlocking Technology's Potential

IN THE LATE 1990s, many firms confidently predicted technology would revolutionize apartment marketing and operations. Four years later, most firms are still waiting to be dazzled.

The story of the pioneers is well known. Many systems took longer than expected to create. Then implementation turned out to be disruptive and costly, and extensive customization often was required. Frustrated, many firms simply retreated to safer ground and declared the revolution over. So, was the promised technology revolution just hype? If not, what do we need to do to jump-start real progress?

Technology can revolutionize our industry, but not until all the disparate systems being used by apartment firms can talk to each other. And that integration will not occur without a common data standard, or a shared platform, upon which all these software products can be based.

Why Develop Standards?

Early adopters of new technologies did achieve operational gains with most applications, but most were ultimately frustrated by their inability to integrate all their new products. For example, online leasing programs improved property marketing, but their impact was severely limited by their inability to pull information directly from, or add information directly to, property management systems. The same goes for accounting systems, Web-based maintenance products, online procurement and more.

Without this integration, apartment firms cannot obtain the technology revolution's “Holy Grail” — the ability to combine and then “mine” their system's rich performance, demographic and economic data to make better-informed investment and asset-management decisions. Apartment firms also will miss out on the chance to create a superior customer-service model that further establishes apartments as a lifestyle choice and not just as a housing option for those who cannot afford homes.

An Ambitious Undertaking

A common data standard could change all of this, however. Enter NMHC's new Multifamily Information and Transactions Standard (MITS) project. Launched as an exploratory initiative in March, the goal of MITS is to create a shared multifamily data dictionary and an extensible mark-up language (XML) protocol to facilitate systems integration and data mining. The long-range goal is to:

  • reduce the cost of developing new software and the cost of converting from older systems to new ones;

  • make it possible for medium- and small-sized firms to transition to the newer systems; and

  • enable apartment operators to interact electronically with related commercial real estate sectors, such as the capital markets, investors and credit repositories.

The MITS Working Group, comprised of more than 40 apartment and technology firms, is focusing first on terms used to define an apartment community and the additional attributes to market properties online. The group will then concentrate on property operations, supply chain management, asset management, back-office administrative integration and affordable housing.

As the dictionary and XML schema are completed, they will go through a public review/comment period. All industry firms, including non-NMHC members, are invited to participate in MITS. Voting membership is available for an initial minimum contribution of $3,000. The timetable for adopting the standards has yet to be determined, but NMHC will release components of the data dictionary and XML schema as they become available. The first set of elements related to resident screening and physical property are expected to be ready for review by Oct. 31.

The final data dictionary and XML schema will be registered with international and national standards organizations and will be maintained and updated by MITS.

Few doubt the need for MITS, but its ultimate success will be determined by the industry. Interested firms are encouraged to get involved today. For more about MITS, its governance rules or minutes of past meetings, log on to www.mitsproject.org.

David Cardwell is vice president of finance and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council. He can be reached at [email protected].

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