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There’s an App – or two – for Seattle’s Mayor

When I stole a moment to speak with Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn it was the tail end of a long afternoon. He was taking a moment to take a bite to eat. He offered me a seat and some artisan maple ice cream from a popular local shop called Molly Moon.

I felt lucky to have a moment with him given the amount of time he had already spent meeting the public. From 1 p.m. on, a steady march of people had answered an open call to tour his seventh floor office as part of the mayor’s second annual City Hall Open House.

“My office is open to anyone who wants to go on the tour — there’s symbolism to that,” he told a crowd of residents earlier that day in the lobby of the building. “There are a lot of power brokers that work hard to get into my office and again my most important interest is you.”

The City Hall Open House felt like an important event for our team to attend because engagement is the central reason why Code for America is in Seattle: to work in concert with the city’s existing missions and projects to empower local leaders to collaboratively solve local problems, with each other and with the city. The event made it clear there was already a ton of initiatives underway and that many of them were driven by the mayor himself.

McGinn’s openness comes, in part, from his background as an organizer and local leader. He co-founded and was executive director of Great City, a nonprofit organization that brings together neighbors, environmentalists, and business leadersand served as co-chair of the Seattle Parks For All campaign, the citizen-powered movement to create and maintain open spaces and parks. He also chaired the local chapter of the Sierra Club, where, at one particular meeting, a woman gave him her homemade sign that reads “Do what is right,” on one side, and “Peace,” on the other. Today, the sign sits behind McGinn’s desk, leaning up against a window.

While McGinn spoke with me he periodically checked his iPad and iPhone — more evidence of what I had been learning all day at the open house: Seattle is a city that embraces technology. A number of innovative web-based projects are well underway at the city including Seattle’s Police Department’s Get Your Car Back, a Twitter feed aimed at locating stolen vehicles late last year, and MySeattle, an application which allows Seattle residents to create their own city services home page.

McGinn came into office already familiar with the power of technology to bring together people for a particular cause. He has used Twitter since before becoming mayor, and his office has been known to address questions through his Facebook account.

“I’m a big believer in using social networks to organize people,” he told me.

He’s also a big believer in applications – for tracking the distance when he rides his bike and for mapping where he’s made a public appearance (he’s big on visiting neighborhoods and plans to make 50 such appearances in 2011). He’s even been known to use his calendar app to schedule “time to think” about an issue.

“I’m so tightly scheduled every day, I don’t have time to think, ‘what should I do next?‘” he said. “I’m totally programmed.”

One of McGinn’s favorite apps is Glympse, an application that allows his assistant to track him as he’s headed to an event. Most phone calls are about checking in where you are at any given time, he explained, so Glimpse saves him time. I told him my mother would love that app.

McGinn’s iPhone buzzed.

“It’s my assistant,” he said smiling, then read aloud: “‘Time to leave, question mark?’”

But before he left, he did the coolest thing. He took the Code for America T-Shirt — the one that spells out “We The People of The United States of America In Order to Create A More Perfect Union” in binary code — and let me take a picture.

Not a bad start for our first day in the city.