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Building Public Algorithm Registers: Lessons Learned from the French Approach

Soizic Pénicaud|

This piece is part of OGP’s “Open Algorithms Blog Series.” Read other posts in the series here.

Over the last few years, the use of automated decision-making tools by governments has grown significantly. Making these tools transparent and visible is essential to ensure they are not misused and to keep governments accountable. There has been a growing call from civil society for governments to establish public registers of the automated decision-making systems they use. Several central agencies in national governments and cities, such as New York, Amsterdam, Helsinki, and French cities Nantes and Antibes, have already answered the call. 

A Collaborative Approach 

In France, the Digital Republic Law mandates transparency of public algorithms. Among other obligations, it compels public agencies to publicly list the main decision-making algorithmic tools and to publish their rules. However, in practice, agencies struggle to comply with this obligation, in part due to a lack of guidance about how to inventory algorithms, what information to include, and how to present it.

In the summer of 2020, Etalab, the French government’s taskforce for data policy, launched a working group with public servants from central (the Ministry of Education and the Customs Department) and local governments (namely the cities of Antibes and Lyon) to explore this topic. Selected on a voluntary basis, every public servant had transparency and open government at heart and was at a different stage of building an algorithmic register in their agency, from exploration to near-implementation. 

The goal was to create a community of practice and to produce public practical guidance around registers. The group met regularly until December 2020, sharing progress, hurdles and feedback. 

The First Version of the Register in Practice

The work of the group culminated in the first version of a guidance document (in French) in February 2021.

The document proposes four categories of information that can be gathered for each algorithm about the: 

  • Agency responsible
  • Global context and how the algorithm is embedded in the decision-making process
  • Impact of the decision
  • Algorithm’s technical workings 

Excerpt from the guidance documents provided by Etalab

The scope and type of information of this register were designed to strike a balance between a maximum level of transparency and the agencies’ resources to build registers. These algorithms are used in a variety of decisions ranging from allocation of public aid to taxation to higher education admissions and more. The goal is for it to be comprehensive enough that it can also be used to answer citizen information requests. 

Thanks to the feedback and discussion of the working group meetings, the document goes beyond listing information and also highlights how to start the process, including who to contact, how to set up a governance system, and which algorithms to prioritize. For example, the city of Lyon decided to first target their social affairs departments as it makes crucial, day-to-day decisions about vulnerable populations. 

Lessons Learned 

Throughout their collaborative work, the working group and Etalab learned a lot. Here are a few takeaways for reformers looking to build public algorithm registers: 

  • Defining algorithms can be challenging. Start by asking agencies what decisions they make on a daily basis and work backwards to establish whether the process contains algorithmic steps.  
  • Setting up proper governance is key. Public algorithms are at a crossroads between open data, data protection, open source and access to administrative documents. Public servants will need to involve many people in their organization, from data protection officers to legal teams, technical teams and domain experts. 
  • Having a mandate from a sponsor gives legitimacy to the officer in charge of building the register. 
  • Building the register is an opportunity to reiterate that algorithms are not a mere technical subject. Most of the information lies in the hands of domain-experts using the tools. 
  • Resources are scarce and prioritizing is essential. Focus on where transparency can be the most useful.

Next Steps

One city, Antibes, has already used this V1 to publish its inventory, with seven algorithms.

Etalab is now planning to get feedback on the proposal register, especially from civil society organisations who could use this information to make governments more accountable. The endpoint would be for the list of information to become a data schema. 

Many questions are yet to be settled. Where to publish this register: on a dedicated website, on the agency’s open data portal, elsewhere? What tools should be used to gather and present the information? Our goal is to try and answer these questions with both French communities and  the international community, in particular through OGP’s Open Algorithms Network.

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