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Calgary’s Next Economy: Ascend and the democratization of real estate information

Editor’s note: During the start up process, Le and Ngan have pivoted their business to help developers determine rental fees. The predictive land identification side is no longer their main focus.

The first iteration of Ascend’s real estate predictive software didn’t go over so well with real estate developers.

They’d built a program with algorithms that could output the ideal building for a specific plot of land, based on factors like geography, land use bylaws, zoning, etc.

“We realized that developers didn’t really care,” said Monty Ngan, who co-founded the Vancouver-based company with Hannah Le.

“They wouldn’t put their trust in AI (artificial intelligence) over any architects.”

They took it before 57 developers. No bites.

That’s when Ngan, who has a background in start ups and business analytics, decided to flip the idea on its ear. Instead of predicting the ideal building, they would start predicting the ideal piece of underutilized property to develop.

It’s a big leap from what both did previously.

Ngan, who grew up in the Philippines, built an Indigenous language preservation platform. It was developed with the Philippines Department of Education. He travelled to the different tribes in the country and created a database of their language.

Le, with the software development experience, was designing and building bridges for the Canadian government.

She said that you spend 60 to 70 per cent of the time reading through zoning bylaws and land use regulations and little time actually designing the bridge.

So, to speed up the process, she created an algorithm that would input all the zoning data and output the ideal bridge they could build – as a starting point.

They put their skills together and applied it to real estate development in the hot Vancouver market.

How it works

Right now, if a developer identifies a plot of land, they must look through online documents on that land to gather the zoning rules, density ratios, maximum heights and other relevant data.

Similar to Le’s idea with the bridges, they’ve collated that data to create a visual representation of properties that have development opportunities.  They’ve overlaid data from nearby plots of land to see which councillors approved specific prior developments.

“It takes much less time because (developers) have to figure all this out manually,” Ngan said.

It doesn’t end there either. They also analyze social and psychographic trends in the area of the land through the collection of data from online sources.

That could be planned new restaurants, public realm improvements, or new amenities like grocery stores, and even reviews for some of the hot spots. It’s all collected, weighted and used to help determine the future success of a development.

“We’re trying to see if we can map these factors that are very qualitative, Ngan said.

“But add more rigor into being able to explain why this area is more up and coming.”

Building a strong foundation

Le and Ngan have been working on this new plan for the past six months. That’s what brought them to Platform Calgary’s Junction Program.

While they have the technical side on lock, they are taking the time to develop other aspects of their business through the specific activities.

“It’s a way for me to do all the tactical things day-to-day that shows what’s going on in my business that I wouldn’t be able to think of doing,” he said.

They compare their real estate idea to the travel industry 20 years ago. You had to deal with the travel agent to put together your itinerary, books the flight, etc.

“You had to call your travel agent for that personal connection and who had time to figure stuff out for you,” Ngan said.

Now you can get all the information at the click of a mouse. They think the same can happen in real estate.

The duo hope to have Vancouver and Toronto online in the next year. Then they’ll spread to Canada’s other major cities.  Then expansion into the hottest US markets.

Breaking into the industry is tough. Developers, Ngan said, are set in their ways.

But, having the information is powerful. Even for the layman.

“That’s one thing that me and Hannah wants to do is democratize all of the information here,” Ngan said.  

“It’s all out there, we just need to be able to find a way to better structure it, and more easily express it to people.”

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