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Questions of identity and privacy are rather topical at the moment, especially here in Britain where last week a database dump including the names, addresses, bank details of half the country, along with our children’s names and dates of birth, got “lost in the post”.

So what better time to announce a new online identity metric? My PhD supervisor, Nigel Shadbolt is the CTO of Garlik, so earlier in the week I got an invite to the launch of QDOS.

Like the online identity calculator that I wrote about before, QDOS gives you a score based on your online presence. However, this score isn’t just based on a Google search. It has four components (which are each represented by a different colour, and are combined to give a very pretty pictorial “fingerprint”; check out Tim Berners-Lee’s QDOS, for example).

The four components are:

  • popularity: “They say that it’s not what you do that counts, but who you know. It’s the same online – your digital profile is affected by the number of friends and contacts you have. So the more friends you have on social or business networking sites, the higher your popularity score.”
  • impact: “Your online impact is manifested by your credibility and influence across the web. If your name is widely referenced, or if what you have to say – whether through quotes or a personal blog – is read by a large group of people, then your impact score will be higher.”
  • activity: “Activity quantifies what you do online – how long you spend there, how many sites you visit, how often you buy and sell things and so on. The more you do, the higher your activity score will be.”
  • individuality: “In DNA terms we may be individual, but online it’s not so easy. Your individuality depends on the uniqueness of your name and other aspects of your identity. John Smith, civil servant, living in London, would have a low score because there may be a number of them in the city. But Xavier du Plessis, tightrope walker, living in Hartlepool, would be more unique and therefore more likely to score higher.”

From the descriptions of these facets, you can guess some of what they’re searching: friends lists on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn; Google searches and feed statistics; electoral rolls; companies house. The activity metric is probably the most perturbing; like the Facebook dispossessed, I don’t really want my online sales and purchases to be monitored, and it’s not immediately apparent how they could get hold of that information – even eBay identifiers are supposed to be unrelatable to your personal identity.

But it’s all powered by the magic of Semantic Web Technology, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by anything.

As usual, I found it hard to work out which one of my identities I should use. If you enter “Jeni Tennison” in the search box, you’re told that there’s one Jeni Tennison with a QDOS score and then get shown the QDOS score of the Coronation Street actor Jane Danson (Q3009). I suppose “Jeni Tennison” sounds similar to “Jane Danson” and I’m sure Jane Danson is more well-known than me – she has her own Wikipedia page, after all. Perhaps Semantic Web Technologies suffer from foibles we usually associate with slightly deaf elderly relatives.

My “Jenifer Tennison” identity gets translated as “Jennifer Tennison” (Q443), who I suppose could be a mis-spelled me, but who knows? There are no automatic links to pages that would help identify the person with that name, so it’s very hard to work out who it means. It looks like it’s pretty easy to add links for people, but to do that you have to be sure who the person is, and for most people a name isn’t going to be enough.

Of course, adding a postcode should help, but which one to use? We’ve moved house twice in the past two years, and I imagine a fair amount of data about me is still associated with one or other of my old addresses. Whichever postcode I use, with whichever name I use, I get the same message:

Results for: Jeni Tennison (postcode elided)

We have calculated your QDOS based on your name and postcode. To calculate a more accurate QDOS, click on ‘Claim your QDOS’ now.

The QDOS score that’s shown at this point seems to be a semi-random number around the 700-900 mark. My children have roughly the same level of QDOS scores as me. I know the almost-four-year-old spends a lot of time on CBeebies, but I think I have a little more online popularity, impact, activity and individuality than her (but maybe that’s just wishful thinking).

I did try to claim my QDOS, but:

We are currently in beta testing phase. If you would like to become one of our first users please leave us your email address and we will send you an invite as soon as we have space available.

and I haven’t heard anything in the last 24 hours, so I guess there’s no space.

The founders of Garlik (Mike Harris, Tom Ilube and Nigel Shadbolt) can all be found with a simple search. Mike Harris and Nigel Shadbolt have two entries a piece, which implies that the problem of multiple identities isn’t limited to those of us who commonly abbreviate our True Names. Tom Ilube and Nigel Shadbolt’s entries are private, which means you can’t tunnel down into their individual scores (or see any links that would confirm that they were the Tom Ilube or Nigel Shadbolt you were looking for).

The name “QDOS” reminded me of the concept of kudos as described in Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist, where it’s used as a kind of currency amongst the Dwellers. But unsurprisingly, Garlik aren’t claiming your QDOS score actually means anything. Rather, they’re aiming to get people to think about managing their online identity (so they will pay for their online identity management product).

And I’m left once again questioning who I really am. Am I Dr Jenifer Tennison the knowledge engineer, or Jeni Tennison the XSLT expert, or Jane Danson the Coronation Street actor? (The latter had actually never occurred to me before, but that’s the power of QDOS!)