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Enabling the Internet of Things: Q&A with Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

As part of a busy September for ITProPortal, we'll be attending GigaOm's Structure:Europe cloud conference from the 18th to 19th. We caught up with one of the event's headline speakers ahead of the London show - Alicia Asin, CEO and Co-founder of Spain's Libelium.

1) Libelium appears to be involved in an extremely vast range of data-related projects. How would you succinctly describe what your company does?

We are Internet of Things enablers. We provide a modular, horizontal and open source wireless sensor hardware platform that sends any sensor data, using any communication protocol to any information system. In other words, our Waspmote sensor device can be used for detecting free parking spots, to enhance wine quality, measure pollution levels and air quality, create noise maps, save water in irrigation, and more. Keeping the horizontal approach means resigning from direct access to the end user market in favour of working very closely with expert partners in each area or vertical. Thanks to this approach, we now sell our products in 75 countries worldwide.

2) ‘Libelium’ seems to derive from Libellula (or Dragonfly in English), how did you end up choosing this name for the company?

We were thinking about the way that the Zigbee protocol behaves, transmitting very small packets of information to the closest mote for retransmission and we thought that we should name our company and line after a swarming insect. Dragonflies communicate “wirelessly.” Not to mention how beautiful a logo would be with a dragonfly inside!

3) What originally brought Libelium to life? Was it a particular thought or idea that created the company?

My co-founder and I worked on low power processors and advanced network technology in graduate school at the University of Zaragoza. Wireless sensor networks are a field of innovation, with so many different kinds of connections and possibilities. Also, we looked for a way to create the kind of company we would like to work in, one with a strong culture of innovation tempered by a practical sense of getting things done.

4) One of Libelium's latest achievements was adding sensors to the world's first open source satellite. Can you tell us more about that venture?

We heard about the project and wanted to get involved immediately. Launching an open source satellite is so exciting because it means that high technology is getting democratised, and with the idea of opening space exploration to everyone ArduSat has made history to a certain extent. When we researched the Ardusat project we realised they would need a way of measuring radiation levels in space so we offered them to use the Geiger counters we designed for the population of Fukushima after the nuclear accident in 2011. They accepted our contribution and we worked with them to downsize, or miniaturise the design to fit inside the satellite. After all this hard work it has been thrilling to see Libelium's technology launched into space on 4 August and we appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the ArduSat project.

5) Technology produced by companies like yours is driving the big data explosion. Do you feel most organisations have control of the data and know what to do with it?

Scientists say that we only use 3 per cent of our brain capabilities... I think we can compare that to the use of big data in organisations. We are living in the first phase of big data, the one in which we are just beginning to realise how many things can we measure. Right now people are more focused on discovering how often they should measure, as well as figuring out the technological challenges related to storage, sensors, accuracy, etc. It is not that we are not doing anything with that information yet, but we are fairly far from getting the most out of it.

6) What is the key to harnessing big data?

The first step is to deeply understand the problems we want to solve and then identify what we need to do in terms of measurement and, more importantly, define why we need that.

7) In the UK and US there is a lot of discussion about the lack of women in high-level executive roles within technology companies. Do you feel this is beginning to change? Has being a woman ever brought any difficulties in your career?

We are seeing gradual changes. The fact that it was very big news when Marissa Mayer was appointed as CEO of Yahoo while pregnant last year just means that women in high positions are "not normal."

In my case I have had to work very hard to get respect from Libelium's stakeholders not only because of being a woman but a young one (I started Libelium at 24), until I finally learned to just live with that. I try to be better in general every day, not better than my male colleagues - that is a useless stone in your backpack. Those who are not comfortable when working with women are not ready for the modern world: it is their problem.

8) You will be one of the lead speakers at GigaOM's Structure:Europe in September. What will be the focus of your presentation, and why?

I will be on a panel titled “Do you really want all of your things on the Internet?” and I want to focus on the social and economic impact that the Internet of Things revolution can drive. On the economic side, the amount of data and the availability of inexpensive sensor hardware is a leverage point for the startup movement to create jobs. The European Union is funding a lot of projects to position Europe on the leading edge of Smart Cities. On the social side, people are demanding more transparency from governments, which can be achieved with more access to information and by involving citizens in the decision-making process of our cities.