Summit Sneak Peek: Bringing Lived Experience to Designing Services with Michelle Jones

Code for America Summit is just around the corner, and in the coming weeks we’ll be highlighting some of the people behind this year’s inspiring Summit content. These are leaders in tech and government who not only share our vision for a radically improved future for government services, but show what works and imagine what’s possible.

Want to hear more? Tune into the livestream starting at 9 a.m. EST next Thursday, March 12.


Michelle Jones is an artist, activist, and historian, as well as a 2019 Code for America Community Fellow. At this year’s Summit, she’ll give a mainstage presentation on knowing firsthand what it’s like to navigate the myriad services meant to help someone after incarceration, including the cognitive, administrative, and psychological burdens—and how she and her colleagues set out to make it easier during their time as Fellows. Ahead of Summit, we asked Michelle a few questions about what she and her team learned about improving public services, and what those services should learn from their experiences.

Could you tell us a bit about what it’s like working to improve government services that you have lived experience with. How did that lived experience help you in designing a product?

When Christina Kovats, Kristina Byers, and myself agreed (with the help of Kelsey Kauffman) to apply for the 2019 Code for America Fellowship, you can’t imagine the leap that required.

Think about this:

You have recognized a problem in your lived experience, getting out of prison and needing to get access to resources and information and the information provided by the prison is out of date, poorly copied, and cumbersome to carry around.

You have an idea that technology could solve the problem, but you personally have no experience with technology beyond being a user of it. None of us have a software development background.

It required a lot of belief in self to say we are going to apply to this Fellowship so that we can get closer to power and resources to make real change.

Gratefully, we found in the Code for America Fellowship team a group of people willing to support us in taking an idea and creating a useful tool for formerly incarcerated people.

First of all, they did not filter what we had to say through the taint of criminality or minimize our viewpoints because we didn’t have a technical background.

They saw real value in our lived experience and fostered a supportive environment that informed our development of this app. They provided training, technical assistance, communications, meetings, site visits, etc.

And they helped reignite the Indianapolis Brigade. In order to achieve our goal, we needed to galvanize the tech folks in Indianapolis. [We found that] many people shared a passion for formerly incarcerated citizens and helping them successfully re-enter.

What does “designing better government” look like to you?

Government that is directly informed by the population they are supposed to serve, and its operations and interactions with the people streamlined in such a way to unburden the people.

What are you excited to see at Summit?


To see everything Summit has to offer, check out the agenda.

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