In October 2016, the association Droit des Lycéens, which represents French high school students and helps them assert their rights, finally obtained the source code of an algorithm that influences students’ choice of university after the Baccalauréat exam. This puts an end to a conflict lasting more than seven months between the association and the Ministry of Education, which until then had refused to publish the source code of its tool.
The opening of algorithms and calculators is a flagship measure in the French law for a digital republic that was passed in 2016. Since then, France has started to publish some source codes, such as the personal tax calculator in April 2016. This may have created a precedent for the present case, according to the association.
The algorithm in question forms the core of the APB (Admission Post-Bac) online platform, which is used by all students in France. It allows them to enter their preferences in terms of universities and syllabus, and helps match applicants to available places. But Droit des Lycéens believes that the calculation method has been kept secret by the Ministry, and lacks transparency.
In March 2016, the association asked the Ministry of Education to provide the source code of the ABP algorithm. In particular, it was concerned with how students are selected for the most crowded courses, where the number of potential applicants exceeds the number of places.
Source code in a PDF file
In the absence of a reply from the Ministry of Education, in May 2016 Droit des Lycéens applied to Cada (the National Commission for Access to Administrative Documents), which controls access to administrative documents by citizens. Cada issued a favourable opinion on the release of the source code in September 2016. Even after this decision, however, the Ministry submitted only incomplete documents to the association. In October 2016, the Ministry finally handed over the source code of the ABP algorithm, in the form of a long PDF document.
Droit des Lycéens and some developers are currently working to analyse and audit the algorithm. The source code is available on Github. According to the newspaper LeMonde.fr, the developers have already identified some bugs in the code.