A finger on the problem

John Chuldenko can do a lot with his iPhone: search the entire collection of New Yorker cartoons, look up Italian phrases, play funny sound bites from rocker David Lee Roth.

Recently he added a more sensible — and civic-minded — application to the mix. With a few touches of his finger, Chuldenko can now request city services from anywhere.

The iPhone app — a pilot program available to constituents in City Councilman Eric Garcetti’s 13th District — may represent the future of how city residents interact with government.

All a user has to do is take a picture of a trouble spot — a pothole, a broken sidewalk, an overgrown tree — and answer a few questions. Then the data and the location’s GPS coordinates are transmitted instantly to the city.

“It’s like having a city official in your pocket,” said Chuldenko, who recently used the app to report graffiti he spotted while strolling through his Atwater Village neighborhood. He was floored when the graffiti was gone a week later.

“I’ve never been the type to report all these things,” Chuldenko said. “But now that it’s so easy, I do it all the time.”

City Councilman Paul Krekorian offers San Fernando Valley residents in his 2nd District a similar app for the iPhone and cellphones using the Google Android platform. Besides allowing users to report problems, the app also has an alert system that streams news from City Hall and can relay information in an emergency.

New York, Boston and Pittsburgh are among the other cities that have made similar applications available for free on iTunes. Krekorian and Garcetti say they soon hope to take the idea citywide in Los Angeles.

“The app is really something that invites people to participate and allows them to do the minimum of effort but to really be a part of something that is extremely impactful in their neighborhood,” Garcetti said. “It gives the power back to people in L.A. who I think feel so powerless to attack any big problem.”

It’s also cool, said the self-proclaimed technology nut, who added that he was one of the first American politicians to write a blog.

“I don’t know what the opposite of a Luddite is,” he said. “But I’m that.”

For eight years now, L.A. residents have been able to call in complaints to the city’s 311 line. The app, Krekorian said, gives people a more immediate option.

“My constituents should have immediate access to information about the government they pay for,” he said. “We felt that we should just make it easier for people.”

Krekorian has made his office more technologically savvy — launching a policy blog and publishing on his website interactive maps of road construction — but his intention is not to exclude any constituents from the political process.

“Is everyone going to be comfortable with it? No. But they can still write a letter or call our office,” he said. “We don’t want to have a digital divide between people who have greater access to their government and those who don’t. But we’re not closing any traditional access to government; we’re just opening new doors.”

There are no exact figures on the number of people who have used the apps, but City Hall staffers said hundreds have downloaded them.

One of them posted this message to Garcetti’s Twitter account: “Just reported my third dead squirrel…. I am now the Mayor of Deadsquirreltown!”

For now, the apps send users’ complaints to City Hall staffers, who then direct them to the appropriate departments. Eventually, they say, the data will be transmitted directly to the appropriate agencies.

Krekorian’s app was developed in-house. Garcetti’s was designed by a Los Angeles software company called CitySourced, which has designed similar software for San Jose and San Francisco.