Curry: "There is a value to aggregating because it costs a lot."Curry: “There is a value to aggregating because it costs a lot.”

ATLANTA—Some say the commercial real estate industry is lagging behind the technology curve. Actually, no one is arguing the point—but the industry is working hard and fast to keep up in an age where data is proliferating faster than at any time in history.

Some of technology’s brightest minds converged at the CCIM Thrive Conference in Atlanta Oct. 24-25 to talk about the Big Data portion of the commercial real estate technology equation.

Steve Weikal, head of Industry Relations at the MIT Center for Real Estate, moderated a panel called “The Power of Big Data.” Industry experts featured Doug Curry, CEO of Xceligent; Helen Thompson, director of Esri; Richard Sarkis, co-founder and CEO of Reonomy; Brandon Weber, founder and CEO of Hightower; and Donna M. Salvatore, CEO and founder of Megalytics.

Weikal started the discussion with a definition of Big Data from the Oxford Dictionary. Big Data is “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.”

Weikal also quoted Google’s Eric Schmidt: “There were five exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing.” Then he offered a telling data point from market research firm IDC: less than .5% of data is ever used.

Here’s the challenge: The commercial real estate industry is still fragmented on the technology front, much less the Big Data front. Xceligent’s Curry is tracking 180 different technology companies working to provide products for the commercial real estate industry. Curry offered a demonstration of his firm’s tool during a special lunch briefing after the panel.

In case you’re not truly familiar with Xceligent, the company provides proactively researched and verified commercial real estate information across the United States. The firm staffs a research team that pro-actively collects: a comprehensive inventory of commercial properties, buildings available for lease and sale, tenant information, sales comparables, historical trends on lease rates and building occupancy, market analytics, and demographics.

“There hasn’t been a national provider that has the entire data stack and is willing to open it up,” Curry said. “The new Xceligent platform being released this quarter includes a series of open APIs that allow the 1.5 million properties we are keeping up to date in our system to be exposed in a series of connectors to allow the industry to choose technology products that solve business problems in a true end-to-end workflow solution.”

Curry’s thought—and Xceligent’s mission—is to open the platform and let the industry choose the workflow that best suits its user needs and budget. This may be Megalytics or Hightower or some other tech company.

One question, though, that keeps emerging in any Big Data discussion is: Who owns the data? Depending on the dataset, Weber says, you will get different answers.

“Data is highly confidential to JLL and other brokerages,” said Weber of Hightower, a leasing management platform for the commercial real estate industry. “We keep that secure. Our clients own that data. We are a tech platform that helps them unlock the power of that data and get their jobs done quickly. You would get a different answer from those who crowdsource.”

Esri, an international supplier of GIS mapping software, takes a totally different approach. The firm actually is not working to build a solution for commercial real estate, per se. But Esri’s special sauce is location analytics—and every data set created in the 21st Century contains three elements: location, condition and kind. That aligns with the needs of real estate. Esri solutions can give real estate industry professionals insight into portfolio performance across global, national and local markets.

“We sell access to the platform,” Thompson said. “Our clients have literally tens of millions of maps that are under right of commons usage. They are free, sharable and downloadable… If you agree to provide your data on our platform, anybody can take a copy of it and reuse it. There are hundreds of thousands of people accessing it.”

Salvatore explained that Megalytics, which digital agencies, marketers and business owners use to create faster, more insightful and better looking analytics reports, captures client datasets—but the lease deal terms remain proprietary. “We have licensed data,” she said. “We have third-party sources. We use public data. We have data on over 15,000 industries and 13 million companies.”

Sarkis at Reonomy obsesses far less over who owns the data. He’s more concerned about who owns the underlying technology. Reonomy creates products that aim to help commercial real estate professionals find the information they need easily. Its solutions are based on validated data with analytics.

“We are a lot less focused on trying to restrict use of data,” Sarkis said. “We are very thirsty for more data sources. The more data we can consume the smarter this data engine becomes and the more valuable the outcomes are. We are willing to be more flexible. We are flexible with data ownership but a lot more obsessed about analytics.”

Xceligent’s philosophy: the broker should be able to pull his own data down and do what he wants with it. Curry said his firm does not own your listing information or your confidential data about your buildings. What Xceligent owns, rather, is the unique compilation and aggregation of it. Xceligent investors have already invested $100 million into its platform.

“There is a value to aggregating because it cost a lot,” Curry says. “We are going to go ahead and take a risk and say, ‘Open the platform up to connections to other workflow tools.’ That is a risk. Our agreements are crafted in such a way that the firms that use the data don’t have to worry legally about what they are going to do with it. But the one caveat is we don’t want people downloading our aggregate data set we’ve spent over $100 million building and sending it off because that wouldn’t be right for the industry.”

Curry says the majority of Xceligent’s revenue comes from one- to three-person shops. Prices for its full suite of products can start as low as $150 per month per broker to as much as $400 in cities like New York. Other firms have various pricing schemes but the bottom line is this, according to our panel experts: Commercial real estate firms large and small need to get on the Big Data bandwagon.

“Big Data democratizes the industry,” Weber says. “It makes you faster at what you do. It allows you to spend more of their time relationship building and the outcome is going to make them look better than their competition.”