This Australian startup helped create Instagram’s new feed

Two of Zuckerberg’s companies use Appen. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty.

Sydney-based language and data services company Appen is one of the most important Australian tech companies you’ve never heard about.

The ASX-listed company brings in over $80 million annually and counts the world’s biggest tech companies as its main clients, including most recently, Instagram.

Instagram has recently employed Appen’s software to help it develop new algorithms for its main feed. Appen CEO Mark Brayan told Business Insider that his company’s data teaches the algorithms to think more like humans.

Currently Instagram’s main feed just places content in the order of how it was posted, but the social media network is changing to show the content it thinks users want to see first, which is where Appen comes in.

For algorithms like this to work you need both live (unsupervised) data, which is based off people actually using the service and engineered (supervised) data. Engineered data help the algorithm have more of a human-like common sense, which is what Appen creates.

If you ever need an example as to why using just live data sets won’t work, Brayan pointed out Microsoft’s Tay chatbot.

“That’s [Microsoft’s Tay] a great example of unsupervised learning, where the algorithm gravitated to what it consumed,” he said.

And what it consumed was a lot profanity and whatever else you could think a bunch of year 12 high schoolers would try to teach a naive year 7 student.

But if you combined that with the supervised data Appen provides, the algorithm can have a supervised training environment. Companies can then ask Appen to alter their data sample until the algorithm is exactly what they want it to be.

Think of the algorithm as the engine for a car, and Appen makes the petrol to allow it to run.

The Instagram partnership is just the latest of the company’s big deals, with nearly every big tech company in the world including Apple, Facebook (which owns Instagram) and Amazon all among its clientele.