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Free app helps residents report problems, get action

Residents of 14 area cities and towns have a new way to alert local officials to potholes, graffiti, and other irksome problems — and then monitor how quickly they get fixed.

The communities are among 54 statewide that are offering a smartphone application for reporting quality-of-life issues directly to local government.

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When smartphone users who have downloaded the Commonwealth Connect app come upon a broken sidewalk, a dangling tree branch, or unsightly trash, they can snap a photo or write a description and submit the problem to officials for resolution. More than half the communities also have the app as a feature on their websites.

Residents can track the progress of the relevant municipal department in fixing the issue.

Participants can also view requests by others and the response to them.

“It’s one more way for citizens to reach out to City Hall,” said Mayor Scott D. Galvin of Woburn, where the program launched locally in April.

The app is based on the Citizens Connect app that Boston developed for its residents in 2009. The state partnered with Boston and vendor SeeClickFix to extend it to other communities and create a regional network.

Other local communities offering the application are Andover, Chelsea, Everett, Haverhill, Lowell, Malden, Melrose, North Andover, Revere, Saugus, Somerville, Swampscott, and Wakefield.

“I think it has a lot of intrinsic value in that quality of life issues are solved without any real red tape,” said Ron Cochran, Malden’s director of communications.

Malden has been one of the most active users. Since the city introduced the system in January, more than 3,000 requests have been filed, with about 80 percent of the problems resolved.

“One of the biggest things I appreciate is the speed with which the responses come,” said Malden resident Josh Velasquez, who estimates he has reported about 15 issues through the application, the vast majority of which have been resolved.

He said he also likes the way the program works as a kind of social network, noting that participants can comment on and endorse requests made by other residents, and even thank the city when problems are fixed.

Among the problems Velasquez has reported are potholes, the need for more signs at a traffic circle near his house, and his concern that a traffic light is poorly timed.

“It makes me feel my tax dollars are working for me, which is nice,” he said.

Mayor Gary Christenson has filed more requests than any other Malden user of the application, with more than 400 submitted.

“The joke we use is if he decides to walk to work in the morning, that means it’s bad news for the DPW director,’’ Cochran said.

Commonwealth Connect is being funded with a $400,000 grant the state awarded to Boston last year from its Community Innovation Challenge program.

Boston sought to extend its program after hearing from residents who wanted to be able to use the app when they traveled outside of the city, and seeing interest from other communities.

Participating communities get the app free for three years, after which they can continue in the program at a cost of about $5,000 a year.

The 54 communities included 46 selected by Boston officials through an application process, according to Chris Osgood, cochairman of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. About 60 in all applied.

“We were looking for municipalities who had an interest in providing this tool to their residents and who were willing to have a dedicated resource to help implement this tool, and an excitement in being able to deliver on the promise of civic engagement,” Osgood said.

Andover, Chelsea, Lowell, Saugus, Swampscott, and Quincy had already introduced a SeeClickFix application after Boston did, so they were able to join the program without having to apply, and were not included in the grant. (Somerville had a more limited app from a different vendor, so it did have to apply.)

The other two communities are Worcester, also not included in the grant, and Boston.

Commonwealth Connect became available in January and is now up and running in all but about four of the communities.

Miles Lang-Kennedy, chief of staff to Mayor Daniel Rizzo, said Revere is pleased by how the program has worked since it was initiated in March.

Lang-Kennedy said, for example, one resident recently reported that someone had violated city rules regarding how much trash can be left out for collection. A city inspector acknowledged the complaint, then reported that he fined the violator.

“The resident can see the loop closing,” Lang-Kennedy said.

Galvin is also pleased how the system is working so far in Woburn. In addition to providing residents a chance to communicate with City Hall, it allowed the city to implement a work order system.

While he said there is “room for more residents to be using it,” City Manager Jay Ash of Chelsea said the system works “because it allows residents to communicate directly with the department heads who are responsible for the problems they have identified. And the tracking system allows me to know if the department heads have responded.”

Steve Craig, Somerville’s director of constituent services, said the city is “very excited” about Commonwealth Connect, which it plans to launch in several weeks.

It will enable Somerville to expand upon the community outreach it maintains through its 311 information phone system, he said.

“It gives people another channel to communicate with us, which is our ultimate goal — to make us accessible to everyone in the population,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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