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The REALTOR.ca Map: Annual Check-Up

SECHELT, BC, CANADA — July 13, 2009 — Sunshine Coast real estate agent Gary Little has written the following article that appeared in the September issue of Real Estate Marketing magazine. For a PDF version of the published REM article, click here.

CREA's REALTOR.ca interactive real estate map was a preemie, born a year ago on July 2, 2008, about six months before it should have seen the light of day. As a result, it suffered from a number of birth defects, most of which I chronicled here in the pages of REM in August 2008. The most serious problem was that prospective home buyers were unable to embrace CREA's baby unless they happened to be using Internet Explorer on Windows or an old version of the Firefox browser. This meant that about 1 in 4 people, perhaps many more, were very disappointed.

I have good news to report: thanks to some excellent work by some software surgeons, many of the early defects have now been corrected and the patient is expected to have a long life. However, there are still several blemishes that need prompt attention, some genetic (which may be difficult or expensive to fix) and others environmental (which can be fixed more easily).

Genetics

The map's genetic defects derive from flaws in its parents (CREA and its member real estate boards) and its grandparents (Microsoft and its licensees). Their commitment to make fundamental lifestyle changes could overcome these flaws but, inevitably, the occasional intervention by concerned friends (we agents) will be necessary to ensure continued good health.

A long-standing CREA flaw has been its apparent assumption that everyone in the general public has a computer running Windows and Internet Explorer; CREA rarely seems to make an effort to support anything else, particularly other important operating systems. (I just checked the statistics for my own website and 28% of the visitors are running the Macintosh OS. This is an OS that CREA still says it does not support!) This just doesn't cut it when adoption of internet standards makes it easy for Web-based software to work with virtually any modern OS and browser. CREA's decision last year to release a REALTOR.ca map that shut out huge numbers of potential buyers was unforgivable.

The good news is that CREA finally seems to have changed its attitude — no doubt the result of the several thousand complaints it likely received when the map was born. The map now works very well with the latest versions of the most popular browsers: Internet Explorer (Windows), Firefox (Windows and Mac), Google Chrome (Windows), and Safari (Windows and Mac). The Location box and zoom slider still drift out of position on some of these browsers and the "Save Search" feature is inexplicably missing when using Safari, but the basic capabilities of the map work as advertised. Users of the Opera browser, very popular in Europe, aren't so lucky because the Location box and zoom slider are both missing, making it awkward to navigate the map.

Let's now take a close look at the grandparents. They are Microsoft, which provides CREA with the interactive map infrastructure called Bing Maps (formerly called Virtual Earth), and a handful of Microsoft's data suppliers who provide the road maps and aerial photography.

Microsoft's biggest competitor in the interactive map business is Google which has created the popular Google Maps service. Bing Maps and Google Maps are quite similar in concept and functionality but, as we will see, the quality of the geographic data they present is quite different.

Let's begin by looking at the quality of Bing's aerial photography. What we need in a useful real estate map is the ability to examine photographs of a property so that we can discern the positions of homes and outbuildings especially relative to neighbouring properties. I hate to embarrass the largest software company on the planet, so I won't use the word that best describes its aerial photography, but it begins with "s-t" and ends with "i-n-k-s".


The best aerial photography available for Nanaimo, BC on Bing (left) and Google (right). That's the roof of the Nanaimo Bastion on Google. Good luck finding it on Bing.

I'm exaggerating, of course. The aerial photography is excellent for the biggest cities in Canada. But anyone looking for homes in such backwaters as Saskatoon, Nanaimo, Thunder Bay, Lunenburg, Moose Jaw, or Red Deer will be very disappointed — the resolution is so bad that it is not possible to identify individual homes. The aerial photography used in Google Maps is far superior for these towns (the resolution is often more than 100 times better) as well as for many other towns in Canada. I have yet to find an example where the Google photography is worse than the corresponding Bing photography. Someone at CREA needs to insist that Microsoft licence better aerial photography for Canada... or else.


Shoreline resolution in a rural area (Madeira Park, BC): Bing (left) and Google (right). The Google depiction reflects reality.

The Bing road maps are certainly in better shape than the aerial photography and are similar in quality to the road maps available on Google Maps. Both suffer from infrequent updates, however, so don't expect to see new subdivisions show up anytime soon. The biggest problem with Bing seems to be the atrocious low-resolution depiction of shorelines in rural areas, often making them look quite distorted. Google has its own difficulties: its maps often fail to apply a blue colour to lakes and major rivers — on a large-scale map of Castlegar, BC, for example, the mighty Columbia River passing through town is mysteriously missing.

Environment

A no-brainer requirement for any map is that towns and other landmarks be accurately positioned. If they're not, the map is useless. CREA uses a complex address-to-coordinate conversion database to automate the placement of properties for sale, but the results are often unacceptable since the database often returns only rough estimates, particularly in rural areas. It also cannot handle vacant lots that do not yet have a conventional street address. My rule of thumb is that properties need to be plotted on the correct street within 50 metres of their actual location for a real estate map to be useful.

A few weeks ago an excited young couple rushed into our office saying they had just spotted on REALTOR.ca a view home on 2nd Street for a very low price. "We have to see it now!" they exclaimed. After a little due diligence we determined that the house was on 2nd Street all right, but the one located several hundred kilometres away on Malcolm Island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The couple was very disappointed. This is the very type of error we need to eliminate before the public will have complete confidence in using the REALTOR.ca map.

We can fix positioning problems once and for all by making a simple change to our work environment: whenever we take a listing, we also determine the geographic coordinates of the property and supply them to the Board. It's so easy, but few of us seem to do it.

I suggested to my local Board that it require all agents to provide coordinates when they send in listing details. I was met with surprising resistance: "we're concerned about putting more requirements on agents." All I can do is shake my head in dismay — the location of a property is its most important attribute, especially now that CREA has made the REALTOR.ca map the primary tool for searching for property in Canada. Why the specious concern for the agent, shouldn't client satisfaction be the #1 priority?

Doctor's Orders

Dr. Gary's Rx for CREA is: (1) iron out the last few browser wrinkles; (2) insist that Microsoft provide better aerial photography and road maps — or switch to a Google Maps solution if it doesn't; and (3) have every Board in Canada insist that agents provide geographic coordinates with their listing data. This prescription will ensure that our cartographic baby will grow up to become a healthy, productive adult.

OK, it's time for me to wrap up. I have to check out a hot $500,000 waterfront property in West Vancouver I've just spotted on the map. At least I think it's on the waterfront... and I think it's in West Van!

___________

Gary Little is a sales representative with Royal LePage Sunshine Coast in Sechelt, BC. He is a former senior software marketing manager, having worked in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years at the worldwide headquarters of Apple Inc. and Sun Microsystems, Inc. He is well known for his interactive real estate map of the Sunshine Coast, his interactive George Vancouver 1792 exploration map, as well as the many antique paper maps on display in his office. He is known as "Map Man" and has the cape to prove it. Gary's contact info can be found at www.GaryLittle.ca.

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CONTACT INFORMATION

Gary Little, realtor®
Royal LePage Sunshine Coast
5485 Wharf Ave., P.O. Box 65
Sechelt, BC V0N 3A0
Cell: 604-741-5347
Office: 604-885-0299
Fax: 604-885-0298
gary@garylittle.ca
www.garylittle.ca

This news release is located online at: http://www.GaryLittle.ca/pr-20090713.html