For some bankers their worst nightmare - easy consumer access to HMDA - data is being realized. Others view this not as a threat but as a tool that will help community groups keep them honest in their CRA commitments.

Software that will let anyone with a personal computer access HMDA data free of charge was launched in Phoenix on Nov. 18 at the Southwest regional CRA conference of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Developers are soliciting bankers to test the system.

Were looking for 250 people from community groups, regulators, media, consumers and banks to see how it works, said John Chelen, executive director of the Unison Institute in Washington. He is signing up users of the Housing and Mortgage Data Assistance Project. We want them to use the system with some regularity and provide written feedback. We hope by the summer we will have been able to make some improvements and refinements to allow more users access.

Chelen stated that this effort was in response to the needs of community and national groups that are working to ensure fair lending and fair housing practices are implemented. These important data bases contain information on the lending practices of private mortgage-issuing institutions as well as the demographic characteristics of the neighborhoods and markets these institutions serve, he said.

After mailing in a form, a participant can expect to receive a user manual, software and a cheat sheet on how to get into the data base. You can dial in with a user account name and a password using a computer and modem, a Mac, PC or any other kind of computer that has communications software. If there are problems with communications, you can pick up a phone and call someone, said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which together with the Unison Institute operates the Right-To-Know Network, which provides access to multiple environmental data bases. The HMDA project was based upon the technical and organizational capability established for RTK Net.

Bass also told Mortgage Marketplace that around the country the HMDA projects developers will be doing three kinds of training: how to use RTK Net, how to use the data, and training the trainers to get more people able to teach others to use on line services. Some banks have responded well to the anticipated global access of HMDA data. We've done demonstrations both in Boston and New York for some banks and foundations, Bass said. The response was very positive. They thought they could use it but more importantly, they thought it was a responsible thing to do. It could help them meet their objectives in the CRA requirements. I think banks may be nervous in the event of inappropriate use of data. That's why were are providing so much training.

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