April 14, 2006

NAR walks the open source walk

Author: Tina Gasperson

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) exists to help its 1.2 million members "become more profitable and successful." The NAR provides buying power, education, government policy influence, and the latest technology. In fact, NAR has its own IT department, dedicated to making a real estate agent's job easier through the use of open source technology, called the Center for Realtor Technology (CRT).

CRT has four full-time staff members, and they all do everything open source, says Keith Garner, strategic architect. "My boss, the vice president of CRT, codes as much or maybe more than I do on an average day," Garner says. "It's open source just for the fact of rapid development." Garner and his boss, Mark Lesswing, have worked together at other companies. Garner says back in 1997, Lesswing used to be a "big OS/2 guy. I slowly got him converted over and he started to see the value, to see the 'way,' to understand the value of open source."

When Lesswing applied for a job heading up the CRT, the exact function of the department was still up in the air. "They didn't know exactly what it was going to do," Garner says, but Lesswing came in preaching advocacy, education, and implementation, and that got them both a job. "We advocate to our members the technology they should be using and looking at, and we advocate to the vendors on their behalf. We go to the national, state, and local association meetings for anyone who wants to hear us yap and do educational talks," he says. "We always said we would do stuff as open source, and we would do proof of concepts, full projects, find holes, and explore areas to help the industry as a whole."

A large part of what the CRT team does is proof of concept. They create a low-cost, open source solution for realtors, and make the technology available to IT vendors that brokers hire to outfit their offices, and to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). For example, Garner and his team coded something they call Messenger, a VoIP-based technology that routes email from potential clients to realtors cell phones. According to Garner, a study found that the average response time from realtors communicating with clients via email was seven days. "By that time, the customer has moved on," he says. Messenger, built on Asterisk, translates text entered at the realtor's Web site into voice and phones it in so the agent can respond quickly. "The guy who was working on it before over-engineered it, and we're simplifying it. The MLS in Texas is providing Messenger as a service to its members."

Other projects, like NoScrape and reCaptcha, help keep bots -- automated programs that access Web sites -- from "scraping" confidential MLS data. Garner's favorite project is ezRETS. RETS (Real Estate Transaction Standard) is an open standard for exchanging real estate database information. "ezRETS is an ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) driver that talks to RETS servers," Garner says. "It allows someone on a Windows box to do queries against RETS from an application like Excel." Database subscribers can create their own "pulls" to get custom information from the RETS server rather than relying on canned feeds. The ODBC driver makes it easier for the average realtor by letting them use familiar Windows applications to request data.

Garner says he and his colleagues are dedicated to the use of open source software. "We try, and we do succeed, to walk the walk as much as talk the talk," he says. "I've been running Linux since 1994." Garner is hesitant to talk about the Macintosh laptop that will soon replace his longtime Linux notebook. "It's kind of a big step for me. But right now, I'm doing a lot of work that OS X just does, like discovering external monitors. Wireless could be better on Linux. It's a little painful sometimes. But since I travel so much, there's those areas where I'm going to have to move away from [open source] a little, unfortunately."

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