From his offices in San Diego, Joe Greenblatt can see the 63 properties he manages up the North County coast, across the Inland Empire and Desert markets, even over the Arizona state line into Phoenix. As president and CEO of Sunrise Management, a third-party manager of 9,500 units throughout California and Arizona, he can look at a community-by-community rundown of new leases, rents, renewals, retention rates, even the marketing dollars that are being spent at a specific property. And when something pops out at him—good or bad—he can pick up the phone and find out what’s going on. “We started seeing the retention level at one of our newer properties in Mesa, Ariz., start ticking up to the point that it reached 68 percent. That deserves some recognition,” Greenblatt says. “We worked with the regional manager to pinpoint the staffing changes that you could see in the numbers.”

Greenblatt “saw” those changes using the executive dashboard integrated with his OneSite property management system, developed by Carrollton, Texas–based RealPage. Since implementing the dashboard feature of the software in 2010, he’s been proactive about tackling day-to-day issues involving occupancy, operations, even walk-in traffic analysis. And he can do it all from his PC, without having to fumble through multiple Excel spreadsheets, or make the long trek to a distant community. While he’s not exactly acting—or reacting—in real time, having a view into each community’s metrics has allowed him to quickly make informed decisions to more efficiently run his portfolio. “For us, it is less about ‘just-in-time’ and more about quickly acting on reliable, timely information,” Greenblatt says. “Using the dashboard data makes us more nimble.”

Across the industry, apartment owners and managers are leveraging technologies that tap into their existing software and systems to help monitor their portfolios and properties via a real-time, single-interface dashboard. And with all that data readily and steadily available, multifamily executives are having to determine how best to use that information in their decision-making processes.

What’s New Now

While nothing new to the business world in general, the use of business intelligence (BI) and near–real-time operating metrics gathered through executive dashboards has become a more integrated part of numerous industries. The official addition of a BI educational track at 2011’s info360 conference—the biggest show of the year in the content management space—prompted InformationWeek to declare, “Business Intelligence Goes Mainstream.” Similarly, information management pundits have been touting the “new” BI, based on bleeding-edge data processing technologies.

One reason for all the buzz is that the cost of business intelligence has fallen significantly in recent years. In the past, having a targeted business-intelligence initiative required dedicated data warehouses and high-powered machines that could crunch the numbers. With the advent of distributed computing and cloud services, those kinds of infrastructure costs have been offset, and Web-based interfaces have allowed businesses to consume only those data nuggets they want to chew on.

Whereas enterprise-sized solutions cost six figures just a few years ago—and may still run that high, depending on the size and scope of the platform—distributed tools for smaller organizations are available for a fraction of that. Lyndsay Wise, president of WiseAnalytics, a Montreal-based research firm focused on business intelligence and data management, says midsized businesses­ can now deploy hosted solutions for $6,000 to $10,000, with maintenance adding about 20 percent beyond that. At Parkhurst Asset Corp., a private Canadian REIT, CFO John Carter says his customized dashboard runs him about $1,500 a month.

Those types of cost/benefit ratios are beginning to create dashboard value in the multifamily sector. With customizable dashboards offered by both RealPage and Santa Barbara, Calif.–based Yardi Systems, among other vendors, apartment pros are using graphical interfaces to get a handle on everything from marketing, move-outs, and turn costs to utility usage and operational areas that are ripe for an efficiency overhaul. While the transactional velocity of the multifamily business doesn’t exactly equate to an overnight bump in productivity typically seen in, say, the manufacturing business, using BI on a daily basis can add up to larger-scale gains for apartment operators over time.

Number Crunching

“I wouldn’t get carried away with the ‘just-in-time’ paradigm,” says Donald Davidoff, group vice president, strategic systems, at Englewood, Colo.–based Archstone, owner of 72,996 units. The company began using dashboards in 2004 and now leverages Microsoft’s SQL Server Integration Suite, Analysis Services, and Reporting Services (SSIS, SSAS, and SSRS), along with its newer, PerformancePoint Server offering.

It’s the aggregate effect of using a dashboard over time that makes the difference. “A typical 250-unit property does less than one new lease per day, so things rarely shift in minutes or hours,” Davidoff says. “These tools make it easier for upper-level managers to see and track trends over days and weeks, and then intervene at the appropriate time.”

Given the inherently geographically dispersed footprint of most multifamily operators, having a single-screen solution to see what’s happening in Dallas versus Denver also gives a comparative view into a portfolio that would otherwise be hard to come by. “We have a slick operations dashboard that we use company-wide to monitor the numbers at each of our communities,” says Kristy Simonette, senior vice president of strategic services and chief information officer at Houston-based REIT Camden Property Trust, which owns 68,979 units nationally. “It’s had a side benefit, as well: Because it provides a clear picture of who’s doing what across the company, the stack ranking spurs healthy competition—it’s become a huge honor to be No. 1 on the dashboard.”

Dashboards also help find waste. Spokane, Wash.–based Advantage IQ builds dashboards that let operators see comparative energy usage at different properties, on a per-occupied-unit basis that’s normalized for weather. That view alone quickly pinpoints who’s leaving the lights on in the community office at night and encourages behavior change. “When you monitor something like that, it builds a sense of competition to help drive energy consumption down,” says Angela Moffat, director of marketing communications at the firm.

Of course, although dashboards can serve up the information, you still need to use your brain to do something with it. Dashboard users say it’s critical to let the computers crunch the numbers, and then apply your own, hard-fought business knowledge to use them to your advantage. “The trick is to avoid getting caught up in a ‘numbers only’ decision-making process,” Greenblatt says. “At the end of the day, the numbers represent a starting place to gain understanding, not understanding itself. There may be a very good, temporary reason for a drop in occupancy, but you won’t see that from the numbers alone.”

Intel Integration

Then there’s the conundrum of measuring your measuring. Figuring out how much it costs to implement a BI solution—and track its ROI—can raise more questions than it answers. “Costs can vary from virtually nil, if you already have an enterprise license on SQL Server, to very, very high, if you’re starting from scratch,” Davidoff says. “As for ROI, we’ve never tried to measure the return on being smarter and faster. But we have faith it’s worth it.”

And, like any technology, the promise and the process are sometimes at odds. That’s especially true when it comes to integrating different systems to feed a single data stream in consumable chunks.

“We’ve found that most major property management systems are poorly documented, if not incomprehensible. They are typically difficult to work with when it comes to integration for dashboarding,” says ­Andrew Marshall, CIO of Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments, which operates 32,000 student-housing beds in 24 states. “Then there’s the fact that all of your data might not reside on the same system.”

That’s why Campus tapped McLean, Va.–based business intelligence provider LogiXML to help build a customized solution that shows a single-screen view into new leases and renewals over the past three months through a tachometer-style display. But doing so took some finesse.

“You’ve got to go in and make the information meaningful, like renaming Yardi’s ‘SCODE’ field as ‘Unit Number,’ so that users understand it,” Marshall says. For those same reasons, Greenblatt stuck with the off-the-shelf solution offered by RealPage because it plugged into his OneSite property management system.

“Just having it work was really key for us,” Greenblatt says. “There are so many ways to slice and dice data to get to a decision point that we didn’t want to waste time, energy, or money on managing the integration.”

Joe Bousquin is a contributing writer based in Sacramento, Calif.