Data is everywhere. And every second of every day, it’s generated by the patterns of behavior that we both knowingly and unknowingly create.
Collecting and interpreting that data to create a framework to help organizations understand how to achieve their goals and make data-driven decision is the mission of Bellingham-based VN Research. The minority- and women-owned data and research firm opened in July 2018, and this year found itself growing in several different ways.
The company was founded by Drs. Jenny Nguyen and Sara Vega, longtime friends who decided to go into business together. They met while obtaining their PhDs at the University of Central Florida (UCF), finding connection in their shared interest of applied sociology—a discipline that uses research methods and social theory to solve real-world problems, like how to address housing shortages for aging residents or how to retain valuable employees.
After completing their doctoral program, Nguyen moved to Texas and worked in the private sector, and Vega—with a military husband stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey—moved to Western Washington and began teaching sociology courses at Western Washington University (WWU). The two talked about starting their own data research firm. They did some market research, found an office space in Fairhaven and decided to give it a go. Today, in addition to their business, Nguyen now also teaches for the Department of Sociology at WWU.
The business’s focus, Nguyen says, is to bridge the gap between data and community. They collect such data through focus groups, surveys, meetings and phone interviews, then piece it together and have a conversation with clients about what it means.
The company’s first major project was for Whatcom County Public Works. When county research revealed that septic tank leakage was a probable factor in water quality degradation in specific areas, VN Research was hired to create a data-driven campaign to approach the issue.
The company collaborated with key county staff to create messaging that would resonate with septic tank owners, then worked with Bellingham firm Ketchup+Mustard Design to create outreach materials for residents of those areas, including bus and billboard advertising and mailed postcards with information about septic maintenance and resources for septic owners.
In 2019, VN Research has worked with various clients, including: Seattle Public Schools, King County Public Health, Columbia Basin Development League, and All Home King County. One of their current projects involves directing the research and development component of the 2020 “Point-in-Time” count of homeless individuals in King County, where they have engaged PhD-level experts across the country.
In addition to taking on more projects, 2019 saw VN hire two research assistants—Bryan Benjamin and Rachael Shanahan. Both seniors at WWU, Benjamin focuses on GIS mapping technology while Shanahan organizes project proposals. The company also added a full-time project manager, Jessica Calez, MA, who lives in Florida and coordinates VN Research’s work in that state.
VN Research continues working with local Bellingham partners, using Ketchup+Mustard for project design, NW Technology for data security, and Limitless Law for contracting. Bold Eye Media oversees the company’s website.
Regardless of the project, VN Research has carved out a niche for itself as a data research company that’s not only academically trained and ethically minded, but one that relies on relationships with people as much as with data.
“I can’t imagine jumping into a project without in-depth, exploratory conversations with the people that know their business best—the business owner, the staff on the front lines,” says Sara Vega, Co-Founder and Survey Methodologist. “The better we know our clients, the better we can develop a research approach that gets them useful answers to their questions.”
“It’s not just these numbers that are telling the story,” she says. “These phone interviews, these follow-up conversations; triangulating and putting these pieces of data together makes for a more comprehensive and robust story, one more true to reality.”
Vega and Nguyen have similar skill sets, but their roles at the company diverge. While the former focuses on developing effective surveys and developing ways to get people to engage with these surveys, the latter is a statistician who looks at the numbers and the stories they can tell. They also each have their own areas of research expertise and publication; Vega in food insecurity and Nguyen in social inequality.
Vega says that it’s challenging for organizations to find data to answer questions because they are often consumed with day-to-day operations.
“You’re like the fish in the bowl,” she says, “and you don’t realize that the bowl and the water are around you, until you step back. We help organizations step back and see what data they need, but also what data they may already have.”
For a free consultation with VN Research on a potential project, call 360-812-6468, visit their website, or stop by their Fairhaven office at 1140 10th Street, Suite 218.