PISCES: The Way Forward

August 31, 2005

LE: We are talking shortly after the announcement of a new Board for PISCES and that Mark Riddick of Searchflow is to become your new Chairman. Looking at the make-up of the new Board, and especially the new role for Mark Riddick and Neil Ewin of VisualFiles becoming a member of the Board, is there a switch here from a property-customer focus to a supplier focus?

RDeB: PISCES has progressed enormously in the last few years and it is accelerating – we now have an international standard and we will see three new extensions to our standard published this year. And that progress has been supported by an expansion in the membership. We now have 120 corporate members, one-third of whom are Executive members. It is not the case that we are more software supplier focused but various growing communities in our membership do have to have a voice on the Board. We had a Board of 5 and now we have 9 members. The changes reflect the importance of our new mortgage lender community and the document system provider group, the latter being the category which we apply to legal software suppliers like VisualFiles. It is true that software vendors are key to us. If they are going to provide their customers with property e-commerce solutions then standards and the PISCES standard in particular are crucial.

LE: I wondered whether Neil Ewin’s appointment in particular was a way of resolving any potential conflict between the PISCES schema and the LSSA XML standards. Both standards appear to find ways to describe a set of basic components -such as how to describe an individual, a company, and address.

RDeB: You are right that both find ways to describe basic data exchange components but, while that is as far as the LSSA standard goes, the PISCES standard also describes many more process based communications between the parties at the various points in a transaction (eg instructions from the lender to conveyancer in a remortgage). It is important to note that as far as conveyancing is concerned the LSSA and its members now look to PISCES to supply their data exchange standard.

LE: What is the current make-up of the membership? Is it mainly lawyers now?

RDeB: Of our total membership, 36% are conveyancers, legal firms doing residential or commercial property work, 14% are in the document systems group and 14% are property investment companies. Surveyors, Lenders, Occupiers, Title Insurance, Management Software, Search Information and Valuation Software Providers are all well represented in our membership. In particular our lender members already represent 40% of the total UK mortgage marketplace.

LE: I tend to think of PISCES when I think about e-conveyancing. Is that fair?

RDeB: We are really about creating an open industry standard for the whole property industry not just for e-conveyancing. But at the moment, e-conveyancing is a major focus and it will continue to be for as long as government wants to encourage the adoption of e-commerce in this area.

LE: Does your organisation get government support?

RDeB: It is a great shame but despite many meetings and communications we currently do not receive any tangible support from government. The Land Registry for example is to co-ordinate all relevant e-conveyancing activity and seems to favour a central private portal or “chain matrix” system which they plan to provide and manage themselves. They have just appointed IBM to provide advice and possibly build the project. From my perspective, the difficulty is that they have not joined the PISCES initiative and apparently do not seem to want to use any aspect of our free industry standard. They do not even publicly encourage organisations to support the PISCES standard because this might show some form of favouritism.

LE: I don’t want to seem unduly negative, but isn’t there a danger that the Land Registry will dictate a portal system that could contradict or de-value your work?

RDeB: I think that is an obvious question and one that has been raised in the industry. It certainly shouldn’t be a possibility but it is no wonder that the conveyancing industry is confused and that some within it ask themselves whether they should wait and see, instead of just getting on with it. The Land Registry has declined to join PISCES and have merely indicated that they will “work alongside PISCES (and others)” in a non-exclusive way. This unfortunately sends a confused message on the adoption of standards to the industry.

In the USA, where we are now operating under the acronym OSCRE (Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate), the GSA, a federal government agency is a direct member and sees no problem with that. Here government seems keen to stress the need for open standards, especially in championing .net, but when faced with an organisation which is self-funding, non-profit, seeking to deliver an open e-commerce standard to meets the needs of the whole industry, we are getting no support.

The Land Registry may believe that it can dictate standards to the industry but you cannot implement private portal systems without very wide-ranging industry support, expertise and participation.

LE: If they are looking to collaborate with you in a non-exclusive way, it suggests that there is someone else with whom they intend to collaborate. Who do they mean?

RDeB: It is important to remember that PISCES only builds common exchange standards, develop schema and the like. We are not looking to establish the functionality or content for e-conveyancing – of course there are many organisations with whom they must collaborate for that. But the Land Registry response implies that there is another industry standard out there whereas the truth is that there is no property related industry body other than PISCES. All the other people in the private sector who have developed their own schema are members of PISCES and therefore already work with us.

Anybody who has built an interface between two systems knows that it is very painful and it takes a lot of time and money. There is no need for e-commerce to be done in this way because the industry has given birth to an independent organisation that democratically compiles and publishes an open free standard to link supply chains. Why would the government think that this should not be fully encouraged and visibly supported?

A visiting company from South Africa (Lawyers Access Web or L@W), which has a near monopoly of web based conveyancing over there, immediately recognised that the UK has too many diverse suppliers and services for any single conveyancing solution to be possible over here. They believe that our industry standard is a very practical way to support our market structure and rich diversity of supply chains.

If I seem overly concerned about government support then it is because it is delaying e-commerce progress which could benefit all. For example, we have many active members in Scotland who can extend our standard to suit the Scottish jurisdiction. But the Registrars of Scotland have indicated that they will join us only if the Land Registry joins PISCES.

Of course not all UK government bodies are as reserved and we have had very positive relationships developing which should become more visible soon.

LE: Are the Law Society members?

RDeB: No. Whereas the RICS is an Executive member of PISCES, the Law Society is not. The members of the RICS are all involved in property transactions but only a proportion of the members of the Law Society are. As their role is to represent the individual members, I think that is why they have not yet joined but we seek to encourage their collaboration in some way.

LE: You mentioned the USA and OSCRE earlier on, is that a major expansion?

RDeB: One of the principal drivers behind the development of our new version 2.0 of the standard was that we needed something that was usable internationally. We have achieved that – among other things, the new standard has multi-language support and complies with international technology standards. OSCRE is growing reassuringly in the USA and their Data Consortium which was previously running on parallel lines has put its work into our pot – and has benefited from adopting our development framework and procedures. We are moving to a new global structure where there is an OSCRE International central body controlled by three regional members, namely PISCES Europe, OSCRE Americas and OSCRE Asia-Pacific.

LE: It strikes me that a lot of the PISCES work is done by volunteers. Do you have a problem in finding people to do that work?

RDeB: Our entire development effort and our Management Board relies on members providing resources, principally people with current industry experience. We find that members love to be at the table sharing their intellect and ideas. Our IP has essentially been donated to us. While we have considerable in-house expertise on the development of schema and our UK staff numbers have increased to 6 , the content of the schema is collectively defined by people in the industry. The level of commitment we get is a valuable endorsement from the people that really understand the benefit of linking systems and sharing data automatically.

LE: Let’s hope that you get the commitment from government that you so keenly seek. Thank you for giving up so much of your time

For more about PISCES, see www.pisces.co.uk