Unlocking the potential of XML

Led by the NMHC, the apartment industry’s Data Standards Project is changing the way firms exchange data and process information.


When HTML, the language that makes the Web work was introduced, it revolutionized the ability to display information and data on different computers using different operating systems and hardware. Now HTML’s step-cousin, XML is poised to do the same thing for the exchange of data that HTML has done for Web browsers. The result will be a shared data standard that enables diverse technologies and software applications in the apartment industry to talk to each other transparently, eliminating many of the problems inherent in sharing information.

Similar to SQL for data and SGML for text, XML is a standard for describing how information is structured and displayed. It provides the syntax for developing specifications through “dictionaries” called schemas or DTDs (document type definitions). In short, XML is the virtual Tower of Babel that enables the entities speaking different languages to understand each other.

Launched by the NMHC in March 2002, the Multifamily Information and Transactions Standard (MITS) project recently released Property Version 1.0 data standard and accompanying XML schema. The project is supported by an industry-wide consortium of more than 107 representatives of apartment firms, software developers, and online Internet listing services. (For more information, visit www.mitsproject.org)

“This pioneering effort will reduce software development costs, make it easier to customize technologies, reduce data handling costs, improve the quality of information apartment firms collect and enable firms to streamline many of their business processes,” said David Cardwell, NMHC’s vice president of technology. “The ultimate beneficiary of this new property standard, however, is the consumer. As the standard is adopted, it will be easier for apartment firms to update their online listings, which means consumers will get more real-time information about apartment availability, features and rents.”

REMANAGE Inc., a Dallas-based software company specializing in software solutions and services for property management companies, joined the MITS project last June. The firm is lending its extensive software development and integration expertise to the MITS project’s efforts to establish a common data and language protocol for the multifamily industry.

The company, which provides property management and accounting software to owners and managers of income real estate, offers the only product line in the industry that utilizes the Microsoft.NET framework. This platform leverages desktop, LAN, wireless, and Internet technologies giving REMANAGE users versatile access to applications.

“We’ve been using XML internally, but we have yet to implement it in any external applications,” says David Copeland, CTO and vice president of engineering for REMANAGE. “XML offers tremendous benefits for greater interoperability and sharing of data without having to cut and paste. It is more flexible than flat file protocols, works better with multidimensional data and has better search capabilities.”

Copeland say XML will eventually supplant a lot of existing text or ASCII-based file formats because it is more flexible and can be more readily adapted to customized uses. He explained that XML does not interpret the data but uses tags to define and structure data for transfer into other applications. “Its properties make XML ideal for use in credit checks, updating online apartment listings, lock boxes, automated rent payment systems and third-party statement presentations,” says Copeland.

New York-based Realm Business Solutions, a leading provider of integrated operating system technologies for the commercial real estate industry, has been an early adopter of XML standards. More than a year ago, Realm released industry stalwart Argus 10.0 which could natively write and read the XML standard reXML. The company provides RealmX, a service that facilitates the exchange of real-time data between property management systems and financial analysis applications. RealmX leverages Realm’s Integration Hub for XML data mapping and message routing. The service supports the exchange of data from CTI to Argus, Dyna and Budget.

“Often companies use several software solutions from multiple vendors to handle their day-to-day processes,” says Don McKinnon, CEO and president of Realm Business Solutions. “Since these software programs are integrated, companies expend enormous human resources keying data into these software solutions, creating serious and costly inefficiencies.”

It would be incorrect to view adoption of XML standards as a panacea for all the data transfer and compatibility problems that plague the industry and frustrate users and system integrators. XML has the potential to do for data exchange what the Adobe Acrobat format has done for the commercial printing and graphics industries and for the corporate exchange of documents. Both do not require you to have the application that originated the information in order to view it and print it. They are both platform independent and flexible.

Now that two standards for XML have been released, one for resident screening and one for property management, project members have been deploying the standards, putting them to the test and providing feedback to other project members so the standards can be further refined.

Nearly all of the major developers of multifamily property management software have integrated XML standards into existing applications or those under development, including RealPage, MRI, Yardi Systems, Property Automation Software, Realeum, AMSI and Living Nexus.