Taming the Data Tide Remains Apartment Tech Pros’ Priority

With software, applications and additional technology permeating every aspect of apartment operations, industry technology experts are constantly juggling numerous challenges. However, according to a panel of technology pros at the 2014 NMHC OpTech Conference & Exposition, the biggest challenges these days are meeting growing demands in four main areas: business intelligence, application integration, system security and organizations’ niche technologies.

While each executive pointed to particularly pressing challenges in one or two of these areas, the reality was that every executive was dealing with issues in each of the areas to some degree or another. “I think we all have all four of these issues,” said Karen Hollinger, vice president of corporate initiatives for AvalonBay Communities. “So, it’s really a matter of prioritization.”

For both Bob Lamb, vice president of information technology at Gables Residential, and Ray Thornton, senior vice president of information technology at MAA, business intelligence and security were the two biggest issues keeping them up at night.

“System security is my biggest worry, and business intelligence is my biggest headache right now,” said Lamb.

Most industry IT experts acknowledge that a system security breach is less a question of if and more a question of when. However, many are struggling with the best ways to keep external forces from penetrating their systems while better controlling and monitoring the sensitive information moving around and outside the system. Moreover, they are focused on figuring out how they will know what information has been compromised, in the event of a breach, and what the appropriate response protocols are.

“Our responsibilities are not only protecting the data but also having a plan to respond,” said Lamb. “When it does happen, you will be under severe legal requirements, which vary from state to state.”

To better protect their companies and mitigate risk, many management teams are investing in cyber liability insurance, as well as launching education and training programs for their employees.

Thornton agreed but added that business intelligence issues were also particularly pressing for him, especially in the wake of the MAA-Colonial Properties merger. After finally settling on a single property management system, Thornton said there were many challenges in migrating and converting much of the data to the system so management could get a true apples-to-apples comparison of properties’ performances across the expanded portfolio.

“We all agreed on business rules, but when the numbers came in, it was a different story,” he said.

Despite a consistent set of key performance indicators, Thornton said there were still significant variations across the data. The discrepancies were largely attributable to inconsistencies in things like charge code usage, occupancy classification of unit models, last day of move outs and the like, but the end result was a significant hurdle in extracting actionable intelligence about property and portfolio performance.

“No matter how much training you do, there is still inconsistency—all through the chain, from collecting to reporting it,” he said.

Regardless of which of the major challenges was taking priority over the others, all the panelists agreed that the overarching issue at hand is that mountains of information are constantly being collected on all aspects of operations. However, the industry is still grappling with how to not only ensure reliable access to that data but also how to quickly and efficiently analyze the data to better drive business decisions.

Robb Napolitano, managing director of information technology at Rose Associates, wrapped up the session by saying “I don’t think it’s about the technology anymore; it’s about the data… but I’d like to see technology make it easier for us to access that data.”