(Bloomberg View) -- From recording police shootings and political protests to capturing street style and celebrity selfies, ubiquitous smart-phone cameras have become a new type of media, changing how the public sees the world.

The same tools are now systematically collecting new kinds of economically valuable data -- peering into hard-to-reach places, identifying emerging trends and providing a check on official numbers. Particularly useful in developing countries, this grassroots data collection may, like the phones themselves, allow formerly lagging countries to leapfrog 20th-century approaches and establish flexible, nuanced and decentralized ways of answering economic questions.

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